The Kushma-based adventure company and resort The Cliff Nepal, formally commenced operation of bungee jumping and swings, on 31 October, 2020. However, the company soon faced difficulties in paying salaries to its staff due to the sharp fall in revenue because of the absence of foreign tourists as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The company then focused its efforts on attracting domestic tourists. After the main festival season ended, the company began to receive visitors in overwhelming numbers for bungee jumping, swing, sky cycling, slingshot ping, and for stays at The Cliff resort situated atop a hill near the Kaligandaki river.
According to the company’s Nepal co-founder Iswor Karki, more than 300 people visit The Cliff on a daily basis. “The number of people visiting is higher on Fridays and Saturdays. Domestic tourists from places including Kathmandu, Baglung, Myagdi, Bhairahawa, Butwal, Birgunj and even as far away as Jhapa come here for adventure and sightseeing activities,” he adds. Encouraged by the growing number of guests, the company recently introduced the Zorb ball, an inflatable large orb which rolls down on a slope to give rider(s) inside the ball a thrilling ride.
Other hotels in Kushma are also seeing increased flows of domestic tourists. According to Karki, the local hoteliers, who usually do not consider Nepalis as tourists, are now relying solely on domestic visitors and are gradually seeing their businesses bouncing back . “Hotels and resorts here are never empty now-a-days due to the growing popularity of bungee jumping,” he says.
The rebound in business in Kushma shows the importance of domestic tourism to the adventure and hospitality businesses in different parts of Nepal at a time when the flow of international tourists has dried up due to the raging pandemic.
Hotel and resort owners of Sauraha, Chitwan are also reporting growing numbers of domestic tourists. Suman Ghimire, executive director of Jungle Safari Lodge says that domestic visitors have helped hotels in Sauraha to survive. “Currently, hotels in Sauraha and other parts of Chitwan are totally dependent on Nepali and Indian tourists,” he mentions. Currently, the occupancy rate of hotels and resorts there is 15 percent which is growing with the increasing number of domestic visitors, according to Ghimire. “There is now a competition between hotels and resorts in Sauraha to introduce attractive packages to attract Nepali guests,” he says.
According to Mani Lamichhhane, director of Research at Nepal Tourism Board, domestic tourism has become a saviour to many hospitality businesses in traditional tourism hubs including Pokhara, Bandipur and Chitwan. Similarly, domestic tourists are also contributing to popularise new tourist destinations that used to go unnoticed before. The Manungkot Danda at Damauli, Tanahun, for instance, has now become a hotspot after some Nepali visitors made the hilltop viral in social media. “Hotels in several old and new hotspots are crowded with domestic tourists which is giving them a lifeline to survive the crisis,” says Lamichhane, “In the meantime, organisations are holding events in different parts of the country contributing to the domestic MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibition) tourism.”
Increasing domestic tourism activities have also provided a respite to aviation companies that have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Airplane and helicopter operators are competing against each other by aggressively slashing air fares and announcing discounted flight packages to attract domestic travellers. “Last year, we faced massive losses because of the Covid-19 crisis. The situation has improved a little now due to the increasing number of domestic travellers,” says Sujan Joshi, Pokhara station manager of Prabhu Helicopters.
According to Joshi, though the situation is still grim for the aviation sector, companies are working to attract Nepalis. “Prabhu Helicopters has introduced special packages at discounted rates for domestic tourists to destinations including Mardi High Camp, Muktinath, Jomsom, Poonhill, Kapuchey Lake, Dhampus and Ghandruk. However, the Covid-19 related restrictions that are still in place in different rural areas of the country have created operational difficulties for us,” he mentions. He informs that Prabhu Helicopters is mainly focused on operating rescue flights at present due to the unhelpful attitude of local governments. “Unlike hospitality businesses like hotels and resorts, helicopter companies cannot sustain themselves by only depending on domestic tourism,” says Joshi. He adds, “The government needs to help us to resume flights to different destinations of the mountainous region. But unfortunately, that is not happening. In such a situation, we can’t expect to sustain our business just from domestic tourism.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to hammer global travel, tour operators have also felt the necessity to focus on domestic tourism until international tourism gets back on track. Bijaya Amatya, CEO of Kora Tours thinks that Nepalis can be attracted to adventure products like paragliding, ultralight flights, bungee jump, zip-fly, rafting, hang-gliding, jungle safari, trekking, bicycle riding along with activities such as pilgrimage to holy sites. “While domestic tourism may not help much to destination management and high-end accommodation businesses, it will be helpful for those who can offer services at low rates,” says Amatya.
Stakeholders say that tourism businesses will be able to reap the benefits of domestic tourism only when the government comes up with proper policies. According to them, the situation for crisis-stricken tourism businesses can improve noticeably if ministers and government officials work in this regard in a true sense. “The current number of domestic tourists is marginal for us to continue our business and has only supported us to stay afloat. The efforts of the private sector to foster domestic tourism will not be sufficient to realise the potential,” says Ghimire of Jungle Safari Lodge.
Arrivals of international tourists in Nepal plunged by over 80 percent last year; the country only received 230,000 foreign visitors in 2020 compared to 1,197,000 visitors in 2019.
Despite introducing low-priced packages, hoteliers say they are not able to pull domestic tourists in satisfactory numbers. “Domestic tourism promotion campaigns should be launched, and government employees should be encouraged to travel. The time is right for the government to introduce a two-day weekend. These steps could prove crucial for us to recover our losses,” suggests Ghimire.