BY TAMISH GIRI
In 2019, around 6,000 foreigners visited Nepal through the Asian Trekking agency, both for trekking and mountaineering activities in various mountains across Nepal. Likewise, Shangrila Tours received around 200 groups of foreigners for trekking purposes. Similarly, Authentic Adventures P Ltd had received around 300 foreign trekking and mountaineering enthusiasts in Nepal while 30 percent of tourists of Kora Tours were in Nepal for trekking purposes. Those numbers have sharply nosedived following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The earned revenue totaling Rs 467.93 million and Rs 568.26 million in 2018 and 2019 respectively from mountaineering permits. However, only 8,470 trekking permits were issued for Annapurna Conservation Area to foreigners in the first three months of 2020 contributing only Rs 23.98 million worth of tourism revenue which was eventually reduced to zero after the travel restriction and lockdown.
“In 2019, we had the second-highest number of foreigners, 35 expeditors scaling Mount Everest. However, the number has declined drastically this year. We are receiving a few inquiries from Chinese, Japanese and European mountaineers willing to scale Manasalu, but there is no certainty that the expeditions will happen,” informs Dawa Steven Sherpa, CEO of Asian Trekking.
Asian Trekking lost Rs 35 million worth of expedition business during the four months of the lockdown. Likewise, the expedition company also runs skydiving business and currently has 5 teams of foreigners interested in skydiving above Everest. Earlier, they had received a booking of 17 groups for skydiving but 12 of them have cancelled their booking. This has caused an estimated loss of Rs 25 million in income.
During the earthquake in 2015, Asian Trekking’s earnings declined by around 60 percent compared to 2014. However, the expedition agency is witnessing an even more drastic fall in business. “During the earthquake, people around the globe showed their solidarity by visiting Nepal but now the entire world has been bearing the impact of the pathogen, so an unprecedented loss has occurred,” Sherpa adds.
According to the tourism statistics of 2019, a total of 1,921 teams, comprising of 8,202 mountaineers were permitted to scale 20 mountains in Nepal. Out of the total, more than fifty percent were foreign mountaineers, estimates the tourism data. A total of 171,937 foreigners had visited Nepal for trekking and mountaineering in 2019.
As of now, the government of Nepal plans to resume flight operations in Nepal from September 17 and also open mountain tourism for the autumn season expeditions.
“It’s good that the government has announced to start booking for the resumption of international flights followed by the booking of the expedition for the autumn season,” informs Jinesh Sindurakar, former COO of Nepal Mountaineering Association.
Nepali tour operators are sceptical about whether the tours will resume. While the government has decided to open the airport, the lack of a cohesive vision has confused the tourism stakeholders.
“Most soft adventurers will not come to a destination where the entry procedures are not decided until now - health systems are bad, the government keeps changing the rules - travellers do not want to be stuck and health insurance is tough to get,” informs Raj Gyawali, founder of Social Tours.
Similarly, Sherpa informs that he doesn’t have any expectations for the expedition business in 2020 because of the government's lack of clarity. “Small groups may come, even though they may not bring us good business but can be crucial for us to send a positive message to mountaineers and tourists around the world. They can help us to lure foreigners in good numbers next year,” Sherpa opines.
The availability of the vaccine will decide the future state of tourism but it is still uncertain when the vaccine will be available. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) projects that the number of international tourists will decline by 58 percent to 78 percent from 2019 to 2020, which would result in a drop of 850 million to 1.1 billion tourists. In this state, it is not possible to predict the situation of mountain tourism.
However, most of the tour operators have zero live bookings for 2020 and 2021. “With the last October 2020 groups cancelling their plans two weeks ago, effectively there is a hundred percent decline,” informs Ashok Pokharel, MD of Shangri-La Tours.
“I see zero probability of mountain tourism reviving in 2020. We are at the beginning of September and the threshold of what is traditionally the busiest part of the year running to mid-November. So, the year is lost,” Pokhrel adds.
“This year, it’s down to zero. All our bookings for the fall have been postponed, except one trek going to Manaslu, but we are not sure that will come either, considering the time they wanted to trek might have to be spent in quarantine when they come,” informs Gyawali.
With such a reaction from tourism entrepreneurs, the probability of foreigners visiting Nepal for mountain activities in 2020 is unlikely to happen. There are altogether 1,488 trekking agencies and 10,238 climbers registered at Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA). A total of 65 guides in Nepal are recognised by the International Federation of Mountain Guide Association (IFMGA). Covid-19 has left trekking agencies with zero income since the lockdown in March resulting in unemployment for climbers and IFMGA guides.
“I don’t think the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) has done any formal research recently on the number of people dependent on mountain tourism. However, Nepal Tourism Facts 2019 estimates that one mountaineer generated employment for four people. So about 32.808 people dependent on mountain tourism are unemployed this year,” Sindurakar informs.
Asian Trekking and its other sister companies have been employing more than 250 individuals in mountain tourism. However, the expedition company has not laid off any staff so far.
“For now we have decided to reduce our staff salary rather than lay anyone off. However, we may have to lay off some if the situation persists until spring next year,” Sherpa adds.
Tourism entrepreneurs suggest that to restart tourism, Nepal should be able to flatten the pandemic curve first with robust testing. “The source countries must not have travel advisories against Nepal and the government should not implement any quarantine measures for the arriving tourists. However, good health care should be mandatory at hospitals to take good care of visiting tourists who get sick,” says Bijay Amatya of Kora Tours.
Tourism stakeholders identify the cooperation between the government and the private sector as being pivotal to the revival of mountain tourism. They say that the government should openly extend its request to the private sector for the necessary cooperation if required.
“It is high time for the government and private sector to think for the equitable development of tourism in all provinces of Nepal. Currently, most of the tourists visit Province 1 for mountaineering as it has the highest number of mountains i.e. 160 among all the provinces followed by Gandaki Province with 122 mountains. Bagmati, Karnali, and Sudurpaschim Provinces have 52, 60, and 20 mountains respectively, but the number of mountaineers in these provinces is minimum. Lack of information on mountains, lack of development of local infrastructure, inaccessibility, awareness among the local people are the main reasons for which they could not attract tourists,” Sidhukar opines.