As China struggles with the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), Nepali tourism stakeholders ask the government to come up with strategies to save Visit Nepal 2020 from failure and minimise the impacts of the viral fever on Nepali tourism.
--BY TAMISH GIRI
China, devastated by the outbreak of coronavirus, on 26 January issued a public notice restricting its citizens from travelling abroad. Since then, the cancellation of hotel bookings, tour packages, and flight tickets increased drastically and hotel reservations have reduced by almost 60 percent.
The strict travel restrictions in China have had an impact on the Visit Nepal 2020 tourism campaign. Nepal is expected to bring in at least 350,000 Chinese tourists in the ongoing VNY 2020 campaign. However, following the outbreak of the virus, China has asked its travel companies to temporarily suspend all outbound tours. This has raised worries for the VNY campaign and tourism stakeholders in Nepal.
Hotel Radisson is observing the jeopardy caused by the travel ban as room occupancy at the hotel has started to decline. Santosh Bandhari, revenue manager of Hotel Radisson informs that Chinese nationals have cancelled their reservations at the hotel. “They normally made up 15 percent occupancy at our hotel during the first three months every year but unfortunately we don’t have any such bookings now even in VNY,” he says.
He also informed that guests from other countries as well are cancelling their reservations. Bookings have been cancelled till March. “Almost 10 percent of the bookings for March have been cancelled whereas bookings for April are on hold due to the uncertainty of the coronavirus”, he mentions.
Last year, the majority of the 5-star hotels in Nepal received almost 70 percent bookings during February, March, and April which unfortunately is in decline now. “Occupancy has already declined drastically to as low as 40 percent and many international conferences have also been cancelled,” Bhandari informs.
Like, Radisson, the outbreak of coronavirus and travel ban on Chinese nationals has also affected other hotels here in Nepal. Hotel Kathmandu Marriot - a five star franchise of the American Marriot chain is one such hotel. The hotel had started its operation from November last year and had a bigger expectation from Visit Nepal 2020.
Swastika, food and beverage manager of Hotel Kathmandu Marriot, during a conversation with our reporter, informed that the virus has affected tourist flow in the newly opened franchise of Marriot. “The fluidity of Chinese, as well as other guests, has been declining every day. We are sustaining on the local guests,” she informs.
Similarly, bookings at Hotel Soaltee Crowne Plaza have also declined rapidly. The reservation is declining more and more with every passing day. Pratikshya Basnet, public relations officer at Soaltee Crowne Plaza informed that most of the bookings for the room, tour packages and conferences in Soaltee have already been cancelled until March.
“Currently, on average, we have 40 percent room occupancy but it is declining while guests have started to send their cancellation regrets for as long as March. Many big seminars and conferences lined up for VN 2020 by European clients have also been cancelled. It’s a tough situation for hoteliers and tourism,” she says.
Sajan Shakya, general secretary of Hotel Association Nepal informed that the hotel occupancy rate in recent times has fallen down to 15 percent. Hotel Association of Nepal, in a statement, said that it would launch special tourism packages after identifying other sources and potential markets. The association added that discussions with the government, airline companies, and other stakeholders are in progress.
The outbreak of Corona and travel ban on Chinese citizens have also affected the business of airlines and travel agencies. By now, five out of seven major airlines connecting Nepal with China and Hong Kong have suspended their flights for an unspecified period. The ban has namely jeopardized the airline business of Himalaya Airlines, Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Sichuan Airlines, Cathay Dragon and Tibet Airlines.
Dependra KC, general manager of Tribhuvan International Airport informs that except for Air China and China Eastern, all the other airlines on the Nepal to Chinaroute have cancelled their scheduled flights. Previously, the airlines operated eight daily flights to and from Nepal to China. Currently, Air China and China Eastern Airlines have been operating one daily flight to Nepal.
Himalaya Airlines, which operates flights to five cities in China operated its last flight to Chongqing on 6 February and Beijing on 7 February before suspending its flights to China. Ujjwala Dali, brand and service head of Himalaya Airlines informed that the flights on 6 and 7 February had a good occupancy rate.
“Because of the Chinese Lunar New Year, we had good demand and all our scheduled flights to Beijing and Chongqing were almost full. The number declined lately and that is why we suspended our flights to China. However, we did not cancel them due to the outbreak of coronavirus. We will resume them once the demand for air tickets becomes high” she informs.
Some tour operators asking for anonymity informed New Business Age that foreign guests have already cancelled a large chunk of tour packages for March and April. “Many big groups who had booked trekking and expedition tours with us have cancelled their booking and such cancellation is growing rapidly while some have requested us to postpone their trip for the September season,” informs an owner of a Kathmandu-based travel agency.
Shuang Qi Tours, a tour operator specialising in Chinese tourists has observed a heavy loss. The guests have cancelled their entire bookings for the eight-night tour package at the company. The company had sold its packages to more than 1,600 guests in the first three months of 2019. “There is no booking at all. January, February, and March is the peak time for us because the arrival of Chinese tourists is higher during this period but the travel ban has affected such arrivals badly putting our business in jeopardy,” informs Rajeev Karmacharya of Shuang Qi Tours.
The company has lost more than Rs 10 million worth of income due to the outbreak of the virus.
Ashok Pokharel, president of Presidential Tours informs that China is the primary tourist market for Nepal and the outbreak of coronavirus has created a serious problem for VNY and the overall tourism business in Nepal.
However, the government hasn’t taken concrete steps in formulating and implementing strategies other than calling for coordination among stakeholders to minimise the risks posed by the coronavirus outbreak.
A meeting was called among major tourism stakeholders by the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Yogesh Bhattarai on January 27 to discuss the impact of coronavirus on the ongoing national tourism campaign Visit Nepal 2020.
The meeting announced that Nepal is safe from the virus, but is on high alert and will take all necessary precautions to prevent the infection from getting to tourists and the general public. In addition to that, the meeting also decided to set up a dedicated health check desk at several entry points of the country including Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) as a safety measure to detect any infected arrivals.
Similarly, a three-man committee of Ghanashyam Upadhya, undersecretary at MoCTA, Danduraj Ghimire, director-general of the Tourism department and Dhanjya Regmi, CEO of Nepal Tourism Board has been formed to oversee the overall tourism scenario and also to find a replacement for China in terms of tourism source country.
“The massive investments in hotels targeting VNY face a big risk,” says Pokhrel.
“Even if the disease is contained, Chinese tourists will hold their travel plans for a long time, they may start travelling only after 5-6 months. So, it is an emergency situation for VNY and the tourism stakeholders and the government should work jointly in figuring the potential market,” he adds.
Likewise, Bijay Amatya of Kora Tours suggests everyone to not panic and overreact about the coronavirus in Nepal. “The travel industry is starting to feel the impact of the health crisis in China. It’s high time for Nepal to explore Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to compensate for the loss of Chinese tourists due to their travel ban,” he comments on Twitter.