Not only a big challenge, the current viral pandemic has also presented Nepal an opportunity to manage its all-important travel and tourism trade.
--BY ADITYA BARAL
The coronavirus (COVID 19) outbreak will have a big impact on Nepal’s tourism industry. This is because China has almost become our primary tourist source market. The flow of Chinese visitors into Nepal has superseded the flow of visitors from many other countries. India and China have remained as major tourist source countries for the Himalayan nation. First is India from where huge numbers of people travel to Nepal primarily due to geographic proximity and absence of movement barriers because of historical and cultural reasons. China is the second largest source country with the constantly growing number of Chinese visitors; the number exceeded 170,000 last year. There are immense possibilities for this number to grow as the government has targeted to welcome 2 million tourists in 2020. We cannot undervalue Chinese market anytime soon as five airlines are operating flights between Nepal and China and many flight frequencies have been added in the last few years. Unfortunately, the target is not likely to be achieved given the outbreak of coronavirus which is spreading fast across the world. Past experiences show that Nepal’s tourism takes a blow from global health crises; the outbreak of plague in India mid-1990s and SARS epidemic in China in the early 2000s caused a dramatic decline in footfall of tourists in Nepal.
The latest virus pandemic serves as a lesson for us to explore other potential tourist source markets. We need to diversify our tourism trade to the proximate regional markets including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South East Asian countries where we have established land and air connectivity. This can help Nepal to compensate for the loss of Chinese tourist arrivals as well as providing us a lot of impetus in terms of re-enforcing our bonds with other countries in times of crisis turning them into perennial tourist source markets. Besides, our focus should be on other major markets such as United States, Europe and Australia.
The inflow of American visitors in Nepal has constantly grown over the last few years nearing the 100,000 mark. The inflow of Indian and Chinese tourists is because of the geographical proximity and relationship with Nepal. The number of visitors from the two neighbours has varied over the years depending upon factors like their relationship with Nepal and safety concerns. However, this is not the case for distant source markets like United States. Many Americans visited Nepal and travelled to different areas of the country even during the height of the Maoist insurgency.
The Visit Nepal 2020 Secretariat does not have instruments to deal with the current situation. Neither the government nor the secretariat has any plan to mitigate the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic to Nepali tourism. The government should have taken necessary measures during the initial days of the outbreak in China.
It is already late and the secretariat cannot cope with this situation in isolation; the strategy and actions need to be implemented in tandem with the plans of the government. The government should at least establish and build confidence amongst Nepali citizens first and then with the tourists: This means taking adequate measures to mitigate the risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic. This will give a message that Nepal is a safe destination to travel to. Nevertheless, we are still not prepared with effective strategies and action plan.
There won’t be a significant reduction in the number of tourist arrivals if the coronavirus outbreak lasts for a short period, say for a month. But if this fever pandemic drags on for 4-5 months, Nepal’s tourism trade will shrink by 25 percent this year. To avoid this situation, we need some enticing travel and tour packages and programmes to attract tourists from different parts of the world. There should be effective coordination between the government, travel and tour agencies, airlines, hotels and industry bodies. Waiver of visa fees for tourists for at least three months will be a wise move which will send a positive message about Nepal the world over. Similarly, providing subsidies such as tax incentives to airlines and hotels can help lower the cost of stay. Even in difficult situations, people will not stop to travel; they will simply postpone their trips for the future. This is why tourism is one of the most resilient trades.
There have been suggestions that Nepal should explore the possibility of cooperating with Malaysia, South Korea and Dubai which are also celebrating 2020 as their tourism campaign year. But this is highly unlikely because Nepal is a competitor to these countries with its own campaign. At a time when the global health crisis has cast dark clouds over the global travel trade, the key focus of the countries will be on sustaining their own tourism industry.
Nepal will not be able to focus on quality tourism anytime soon. It is because we need to expand tourism activities across the country. For the time being, the number of tourist arrivals matters the most for us, not the quality of tourism. Bringing in two million tourists remains an ambitious target for a country like Nepal. Even with no global health scare and if the government and the private sector work dedicatedly, the achievable number will not exceed 1.5 million under normal circumstances.
Coordination between the VNY 2020 Secretariat, Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) and other tourism bodies would have been more effective if these entities were kept in close locations. It is also important for the secretariat and NTB to ensure that they are spending the budget in an effective manner. The marketing of campaigns like Visit Nepal Year 2020 and other programmes have been very fragmented. A comprehensive approach in promotion is essential to make the initiatives effective. It is not necessary to physically visit every place for marketing and promotion. Digital marketing can provide great avenues for such activities. It is an irony in that people in the government don’t have the vision to take advantage of the digital revolution. Implementation of plans, policies and programmes in Nepal takes place in an archaic manner indicating the absence of a readiness to move ahead using modern technologies.
Learning from past experiences is very important. Previous campaigns such as Visit Nepal Year 1998, Destination Nepal Campaign 2006 and Nepal Tourism Year 2011 failed to meet their targets. During the past campaign years, the overall tourism infrastructure in the country was inadequate. Now there are many high standard hotels and accommodation facilities across the country. This way, a good ecosystem for entrepreneurship in tourism has been created. But low efficiency in planning and execution stands in the way of realising the ambitious target of welcoming 2 million visitors. It will be very difficult for us to celebrate another mega tourism campaign in the future in the present manner. The outcome will be positive only when realistic targets are set and effective strategies are in place.
(The author is the Nepal Country Director of XcelTrip International.)