Plane crash, China’s COVID issues hit Nepal’s recovery hopes
-- BY TAMISH GIRI
The tourism sector saw a gradual increase in international tourists in 2022. According to the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), a total of 614,148 international tourists visited Nepal last year, with 67,932 arriving in December alone. This represents a 306.82% increase compared to the 150,962 visitors in 2021, the lowest arrival in a decade. However, despite the positive growth, the number of foreign tourists in 2022 is still 48.70% lower than in 2019. The recent plane crash in Pokhara and ongoing challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic make it difficult to predict tourism trends for 2023.
While arrivals seem to be picking up, tourism entrepreneurs say it is still early to predict tourism for 2023, given the tragic plane crash in Pokhara and China's COVID-19 issues.
Two recent plane crashes in Nepal have raised concerns about the safety of air travel in Nepal. At present, 20 airline companies, including 11 helicopter operators, provide air service within the country. The crash of ATR 72-500 aircraft of Yeti Airlines in Pokhara and Tara Air's Twin Otter near Jomsom, both of which occurred within a year, have led to increased scrutiny of the safety practices of the air travel industry in Nepal.
Raj Gyawali, co-founder of Social Tours, shared his concern over the recent Pokhara Air crash, noting that while the loss of life is deeply regretted, it is important to recognise that this is yet another crash in Nepal's airspace in a short period of time.
Tourism entrepreneurs argue that while the international media may quickly move on from incidents, the regular occurrence of accidents in Nepal will have a lasting impact on tourism. Gyawali emphasises the need for action to address these issues in order to ensure the safety of both Nepali and foreign travellers, as the lack of safety measures will discourage people from travelling internally.
Cathy Grogan, a British tourist, who flew to Pokhara on Yeti Airlines in mid-December, said: “I will never fly in Nepal’s domestic sector again.”
Travel agents believe that news of accidents in Nepal will have a lasting impact on tourism, as the frequency and severity of these incidents are causing concern among prospective travellers. They also highlight that the news cycle in the US and Europe is not only reporting on individual crashes, but also discussing the trend of crashes in Nepal, which is likely to further discourage travel to the country. A travel agent said Nepal's reputation as a country with a high frequency of aviation accidents is likely to be long-lasting and difficult to change. “I grew up in the aviation industry. These accidents should not have occurred in the first place,” the agent added.
Meanwhile, the national COVID caseload reached 25 on January 17. The total number of confirmed cases in Nepal is 1,001,056 and the death toll is 12,020.
Bijaya Amatya, the CEO of Kora Tours, stated that the ongoing pandemic has led to a significant decline in the travel and tourism industry. He noted that while there was a slight recovery in 2022, it was slower than anticipated. Looking ahead to 2023, he predicts that if there are no further disruptions such as new Covid variants, recession, or conflicts, tourism to Nepal is likely to increase.
Ashok Pokharel, the managing director of Shangri-La Tours, shares a similar sentiment.He is of the opinion that if the situation related to Covid-19 remains stable, 2023 will be the year that tourism numbers recover to 2019 levels.
Amatya told New Business Age his company was able to recover 68% of its business in 2022 compared to the pre-pandemic levels in 2019. As the business is slowly picking up, we are optimistic about the future, he added.
Similarly, Pokharel mentioned that his company also had a strong recovery in terms of arrivals once travel opened up. However, he also notes that the source markets for Shangri-La Tours are still recovering. “But other verticals of the company have shown strong resilience. I can’t complain,” he added.
Tourism stakeholders suggest that Nepal should become stricter about requiring a vaccine certificate for tourists, as cases are rising again in other countries. Gyawali suggests that tourists should be required to present a fully vaccinated certificate valid at least 14 days before boarding, or a negative PCR test done within 72 hours before boarding. Currently, only a CCMC form and vaccination certificate are required for entry into Nepal, regardless of the PCR test results. Nepal is offering visas on arrival for both vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers, but unvaccinated individuals must present a 72-hour PCR negative report.
To boost tourism, entrepreneurs suggest that the government should focus on effective marketing in source markets, improve infrastructure, and encourage more airlines to increase seat capacity in Kathmandu's airports. “We need to re-brand Nepal and be able to take that brand promise to the world. A lot has changed internally and externally, and things need to be looked at quite critically before a new brand image and promise is selected,” said Pokharel.
Similarly, Amatya opines: “Nepal needs to focus more on India, Bangladesh, and of course, our traditional source markets.” Pokharel echoed Amatya and said short-haul, especially India, is also critical for Nepal.
The Annapurna region in Nepal is a popular destination for trekkers, and the number of tourists visiting the area has been steadily increasing over the past few years. According to data from the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) Tourist Checkpoint at Dharapani, a total of 15,900 foreign tourists enjoyed trekking in the Annapurna circuit in 2022. This is a significant increase from the 2,273 tourists that arrived in the region in 2021. The tourism assistant of the checkpoint, Chhetra Bahadur Gurung, reported that this number was even lower in 2020, at 1,976.
Tourism entrepreneurs emphasise the need to promote tourism with a focus on attracting long-staying and high-spending tourists. However, in order to achieve this, the government will need to increase the overall service level at all service points, according to Amatya.
Additionally, there is a question on which category of tourist should be focused on. This is an important question as it will help to determine where to allocate limited marketing dollars. According to Pokharel, this is something that needs to be established in order to effectively target the right type of tourists.
The Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) has developed a preliminary strategy for marketing the country as a tourist destination. The strategy includes participating in travel fairs and sales missions, which is a usual practice for the board. According to Shraddha Shrestha, manager of NTB, the NTB is focused on promoting Nepal in India, Bangladesh, and South East Asian markets. The Middle East is also a major focus for NTB, as well as the BIMSTEC region and GCC countries. In India, the board is particularly focused on border town areas, Shrestha added. The NTB also has plans for China once the northern neighbour opens fully.
Tourism entrepreneurs in Nepal have suggested that the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) should focus solely on marketing Nepal as a tourist destination and not deviate from this objective. They believe that NTB should engage in effective consumer marketing by utilising all marketing mixes, according to Amatya.
Pokharel, however, is dissatisfied with the efforts of NTB and questioned whether the board has shared its roadmap for 2023 with the private sector. He opines that unless the objectives are clear, any road map will lead to nowhere. According to him, NTB appears to be a little lost in their efforts.