-- BY TAMISH GIRI
On May 16, Nepal officially inaugurated its second and long-awaited international airport, Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA), 74 years after the first flight landed at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. GBIA handled its first commercial flight when an Airbus A320 of Jazeera Airways of Kuwait landed on its tarmac directly from Kuwait City, minutes after an Airbus A320 of Nepal Airlines landed at the airport from Kathmandu. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and other dignitaries were present at the airport to welcome the planes. Later on the day, PM Deuba welcomed India Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the 2566th Buddha Jayanti celebrations.
The opening of the second international airport has lifted the hopes of tourism entrepreneurs as the country is slowly getting out of the dark shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic with a gradual rise in tourist footfall.
Such was the impact of the COVID pandemic that the country welcomed just 150,962 foreign tourists in 2021 - the lowest since 1977 - leading the country's tourism business toward unprecedented misery. However, the number has started to increase this year with the impact of COVID subsiding all over the world. Nepal welcomed 16,975 foreign tourists (via air) in January. The total figures over the first four months of 2022 have reached 137,095. Hotels and restaurants in tourist hubs across the country are coming back to life with tourists returning, and tourism entrepreneurs are expecting the number to increase further once Gautam Buddha International Airport starts full-fledged operation.
Talking to New Business Age, Pankaj Pradhananga, Director of the Four Season Tours, shared that Nepal is back with a bang. “Morning shows the day. Nepal has witnessed a steady growth in arrivals right from October last year. The lifting of quarantine requirements worked wonders in boosting the confidence shown to the destination,” he said, adding: “Nepal did move fast and opened for fully vaccinated. It was a pragmatic decision to attract pent-up demand.”
Pradhananga created a luxury MICE (meeting, incentive, conference, and exhibition) movement from Europe in April and May, and it has worked well. Tourism entrepreneurs are anticipating the number of tourist activities to grow more in the coming days.
“In our case, it has increased significantly, as we did operate prestigious MICE groups from Europe with high-value travellers. If we take COVID period as Ground Zero, the business has grown sustainably,” he opined.
However, Ashok Pokhrel, Managing Director of Shangrila Tours, shared that the tourist numbers are growing, but, unfortunately, the numbers are not yet enough to sustain the number of hotel rooms and other infrastructure. “The good news is that the number will continue to grow in the foreseeable future barring a major pandemic comeback or another disaster,” he said.
Pokhrel is hoping that October will be a different story altogether as, by then, his re-designed product range will have been launched.
Despite the increase in tourist footfall, many tourism entrepreneurs, including Pokhrel, are worried about cut-throat competition that existed before the pandemic. The bad news is that the price war has already started. The dog-eat-dog frenzy of pre-COVID days is back. “Tourism's bounce-back has, unfortunately, not impacted my business yet,” added Pokhrel.
In the meantime, Pradhananga's projection for the post-monsoon season is highly encouraging. “Tourism businesses should be able to do 50% of the business at pre-COVID numbers,” he projected.
Likewise, Bijay Amatya, Managing Director of Kora Tours shares that the recovery has just started and the momentum will carry on. He sees the business increasing and is hopeful for the country to be able to reach half a million tourists this year if other things do not destabilise this trend.
Kora Tours' business is gradually picking up and I see it increasing up to 50% of what we had in 2019, he added.
Meanwhile, the mountaineering segment, which had slowed down after the COVID pandemic, has also regained momentum this year. A total of 953 mountaineers received permits to climb 25 mountain peaks, including Mount Everest, until May 15.
According to the statistics of the Department of Tourism, the government mobilised Rs 474.6 in revenue from climbing permits in the spring season. It raised Rs 396.8 million from climbing permits for Mt Everest alone. At a time when the country’s foreign exchange reserve is under stress, the growth in tourist footfall since the beginning of the year has made a positive impact.
Dambar Parajuli, President of the Expedition Operators Association of Nepal (EOAN), shared with New Business Age that 2022 has been an exciting year for mountaineering as compared to the previous two years. “Given the post-COVID situation, there has been a significant improvement in tourist arrivals this year," he said, adding, "Tourism is on a recovery path.”.
Parajuli is of the view that although some countries, including China and South Korea, are observing the surge in COVID cases, tourist arrival is expected to increase in Nepal. “As people were confined within their houses for around two years, they now want to travel and venture out,” he added.
Likewise, the number of tourists visiting Manang in the popular Annapurna Region increased drastically in April. More than 6,000 foreign tourists, mostly Europeans, have visited Manang since the beginning of the current fiscal year. Similarly, the Annapurna Circuit welcomed 6,584 European tourists during the review period. Arrivals from France (801) and Germany (699) constituted the highest shares of the total arrivals.
Meanwhile, Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), has been engaged in various promotional campaigns. NTB held the Eastern and Western Tourism Mart to promote tourist destinations in the eastern and western regions, primarily to attract tourists from the neighbouring Indian towns. Similarly, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation have proposed to the Finance Ministry for allocation of Rs 196 million in the upcoming fiscal year for tourism promotion. The ministry plans to use the budget for a series of promotional campaigns to revive the tourism sector battered by the COVID pandemic.
Likewise, the ministry also plans to organise an international tourism summit in September by inviting high-level delegations from more than 20 countries. Officials say a plan is afoot to invite tourism ministers from our major tourism source countries
Even though the number of tourist and tourism activities is growing gradually, tourism entrepreneurs suggest that the steps taken by the NTB and the tourism ministry will be vital for tourism recovery.
“What the NTB and the tourism ministry do now will have little impact. They could have done a lot during the pandemic (mostly to realign our tourism products, attract a higher-paying clientele, etc), but that boat has sailed. What they will do is more of the same. Chase numbers from the low-yield markets,” opined Pokhrel.
Pradhananga, however, suggested that the officials fix the basics first. He added that having an e-Visa before arrival, online payment in real-time, and a touchless visa experience upon arrival is a must.
“The airport arrival experience has been far more acceptable. GBIA coming into operation is indeed positive news that Nepal is heading in the right direction,” he said, adding: “Now the government and NTB should work to help in the areas of product innovation and development, capacity building, and effective communication. They should leverage digitisation/virtual platforms.”
In the meantime, Amatya opines that Nepal needs to invest more funds in marketing to bring more tourists. Our message must be realistic and in the meantime, the government must improve infrastructures in all tourist areas. To gain the most out of Tourism, Nepal needs a clear tourism policy, improved infrastructure, effective marketing, strong air, and land connectivity and trained human capital, he shared.
Likewise, tourism businesses are refreshing their knowledge and gaining new experiences to be able to remain relevant and competitive. Entrepreneurs shared with New Business Age that they were in a learning mode and are confident of bouncing forward by 2023.