The decline in the number of foreign tourists, who are the main customers for adventure activities, has caused significant stress for tourism entrepreneurs.
-- BY TAMISH GIRI
The Last Resort, a pioneer in bungy jumping in Nepal, used to be a popular destination for foreign tourists. Located in Barhabise, near the Nepal-China border, it was a popular destination for Israelis seeking to relax while in Nepal. The Trishuli Riverside Resort and Pokhara Paragliding also saw a significant number of foreign visitors in the past. However, in recent times, these business establishments have seen a decline in foreign tourists, and an increase in local visitors.
Israeli youths, who visit India for refreshments after finishing their army training, used to come to Nepal for visa extensions in India. During their stay in Nepal, they would visit The Last Resort to tick bungy and swing off their bucket list. However, the number started to decline after Israel asked India to tighten the visa policy, citing cannabis activity of Israelis in Indian territory, shares Bhuwan Sharma, manager of The Last Resort.
In the past, Nepal was a popular destination for foreign tourists looking to enjoy water sports such as white water rafting and kayaking. However, according to Ganga Prasad Nepal, President of the Nepal Association of Rafting Agents (NARA), the number of such tourists has declined since 2010, with many now choosing to go to India, Bhutan, or China instead.
According to Yogesh Bhattarai, former president of the Nepal Airsports Association, the number of foreign tourists participating in paragliding activities in Nepal also decreased after the 2015 earthquakes. This decline in foreign tourists, who are the primary customers for adventure activities, has caused significant stress for tourism entrepreneurs. However, the shift to domestic tourists has provided some hope for the adventure tourism sector.
After the 2015 earthquakes, the share of foreign tourists visiting The Last Resort decreased from 70% to 40%. Since then, the resort has seen a steady increase in the number of tourists from India and Bangladesh. However, the pandemic has affected the number of visitors. Currently, there is a slight increase in the number of Indians visiting the resort, but the ratio of Nepali to foreign visitors is roughly 10:1, according to Shreena Pradhan of The Last Resort. According to the Department of Tourism, the average length of stay of foreign tourists in Nepal increased by 2.6% in 2021 to 15.5 days. The average length of stay was 15.1 in 2020.
Before the COVID pandemic, in the period between 2015 and 2019, 4.6 million foreign tourists visited Nepal. Only 11%, or 491,986, came specifically for adventure activities such as mountaineering and trekking.
In 2021, the majority of tourists (66.8%) visited Nepal for vacation and leisure, while only 10.3% came for adventure activities such as trekking and mountaineering. Additionally, 7.4% of tourists came for pilgrimage, and the remaining 15.5% had other purposes for their visit. However, the number of foreign climbers participating in expeditions has increased. In Autumn 2022, Nepal issued permits to 176 teams, consisting of 1,441 mountaineers from 75 countries, to climb 49 mountains, generating revenue of $722,375. In the previous autumn, the government had issued permits to approximately 500 climbers. Similarly, 110 teams of 986 mountaineers from 74 countries received climbing permits in the spring season.
The tourism sector is a significant contributor to Nepal's economy, employing approximately 20% of the workforce and accounting for 3% of the gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Nepal Rastra Bank. Adventure tourism is a billion-dollar industry and is one of the fastest-growing segments of the global tourism industry. This economic sector attracts high-value customers and has the potential to make a significant positive impact on Nepal's national economy.
Adventure tourism activities in Nepal mainly include water sports, aerial activities, trekking, and expeditions. Some of the most popular adventure activities offered by Nepal include rock climbing, peak climbing, mountaineering, bungy jumping, rafting, canyoning, jungle safaris, mountain biking, hiking, paragliding, hot air ballooning, mountain flights, heli-skiing, skydiving, zip lining, and honey hunting. Many of these adventure activities are primarily geared towards foreign tourists. However, due to the significant decline in international visitors, businesses have started focusing more on domestic tourists in recent years.
Adventure tourism in Nepal has a long history, dating back to the early attempts by Tenzing Norway Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary to conquer Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. According to Bhola Bikram Thapa, managing director of President Tours and Travel, Nepal has great potential for adventure tourism. “However, the shift in focus to domestic tourists and the decrease in foreign visitors have led to unhealthy price wars among agencies, causing a significant reduction in revenue as operators compete with low prices,” he added.
Similarly, Pradhan of The Last Resort adds that adventure tourism service providers such as The Last Resort will need to focus on the domestic market until the foreign tourist arrivals return to normalcy.
As foreign tourist arrivals take a hit, adventure tourism operators have reduced the prices of their activities. For example, rafting operators earlier used to charge $40-50 for a half-day package. But Trishuli Riverside Resort has now reduced that price to Rs 1,200 for domestic tourists, and The Last Resort offers white water rafting for Rs 2,000-2,500. Similarly, the charges for paragliding have been reduced from $80-90 per foreigner to less than Rs 4,000 for Nepali visitors, according to Bhattarai.
Nepal received a total of 546,216 foreign tourists by air till November this year, with 72,653 arriving in November alone. While the number of foreign visitors has increased significantly compared to the past two years, tourism entrepreneurs believe it is still lower than other tourism destinations.
Thapa says the increase in tourist numbers is a positive sign for Nepal's tourism sector, but notes that the number of arrivals is still below average compared to other destinations. Previously, adventure sports services were designed solely based on the demand of foreign tourists. But now they are geared more towards Nepali customers. This shift in focus has had a significant impact on business models for many service providers. As a result, the decline in the number of foreign visitors has had a major impact on the foreign exchange revenue for associated businesses and has severely affected our income, said Pradhan.
Nepal has numerous opportunities in the adventure tourism industry, but faces several challenges, including a lack of competitive marketing. Thapa points out that Nepal has struggled to effectively promote and raise awareness of the possibilities and activities it has to offer. He adds that Nepal needs to do more to make its promotional activities effective.
Tourism entrepreneurs believe that proper online advertising as well as widespread media coverage of adventure possibilities are essential for attracting tourists to Nepal. They also suggest that Nepal needs to offer reliable services to gain the trust of visitors and create a positive impact, in order to promote adventure tourism. Similarly, tourism entrepreneurs are unhappy with the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) for failing to effectively promote the country.
Thapa of President Tours and Travels said: “It is unfortunate that the Nepal Tourism Board is still relying on traditional marketing and promotion in this modern era of technology. We don't know what the NTB is doing. Even if it is working on promotion and marketing, it clearly hasn't been done in the right direction."
Thapa believes that if the NTB had worked effectively and promoted and marketed the country correctly, businesses, including adventure tourism, would be flourishing. “However, businesses have had to face challenges due to ineffective work performance of the NTB,” he added.
Despite the shift from international to local tourists for many adventure tourism businesses, videos of celebrity guests like Bear Grylls doing bungee jumping going viral have given them hope that foreign visitors will return. Additionally, the Indian movie 'Uchhai' showcasing Nepal to the world has also brought renewed hope to the sector.