We need a long-term vision for tourism in NepalVisit Nepal Year is suffering because of the coronavirus epidemic. But there are also lessons for Nepali tourism in the fallout.
Cheng Yumeng (played by the Chinese actor Ni Ni) is a Shanghai food critic who knows the difference in calories between semi-dry and entirely dry sausages. She works at a magazine whose editor is willing to dump a cover story on Tuscany for one on open sea fishing in New Zealand organised by the son of an advertiser. Instead, her editor sends her to Nepal—‘practically the Switzerland in the East’, she says—for an issue on happiness. ‘And what’s more, Nepal’s happiness index is really high,’ her editor says.
Thus begins the 2013 Chinese language film Up in the Wind, directed by Teng Huatao and an influential advertisement for Nepali tourism in parts. Cheng is disappointed, to say the least, by the offer to go to Nepal at first. Nonetheless, she puts up a brave face, because she needs the job. And off she goes with a Chinese tour group. The physical journey transcends into a spiritual revelation, for Cheng has been living a lie all this while, a facade that erases her provincial past in the glitz and glamour of Shanghai.
Her parents named her Tianshuang—‘happy-go-lucky every day’—but she changed it to Yumeng—after a mythical creature that cannot fly—because she cannot live up to the name’s expectations, of being happy every day. ‘Every time I pretend to be someone I am not, I pretend so that people can look up to me a little bit,’ she confesses. Ultimately, it is the tests she has to overcome in Nepal—mostly personal, but a few temporal, such as a protest, a power cut—that allow her to embrace who she really is. Of course there are dramatic licenses—apart from a busload of tourists escaping a protest turned violent, I am yet to find a baby elephant roaming about by itself in the wild at night. But the message the film delivers is clear: come to Nepal if you are looking for happiness.
I came to the film after several travel operators told me the 2013 film was one of the reasons why Chinese tourists started to travel to Nepal in large numbers—specifically to paraglide in Pokhara like Cheng does at the end of the film. Between the Indians and the Chinese, Nepali tourism has oriented itself towards serving these two countries with the largest outbound tourists. And why not? Citizens of the two countries made up nearly 35 percent of all tourists in Nepal in 2019, a number that was expected to grow during Visit Nepal Year 2020.
At the same time, such dependence also reveals a critical flaw in the existent tourism model, most prominently highlighted by the novel coronavirus’s (2019-nCoV) impact on international travel. China has suspended all outbound group tour packages, and reports suggest 40 percent of all hotel bookings by Chinese tourists have been cancelled already. Flights to and from China have already been cancelled, and the land borders have been closed too. Although we don’t yet know the full impact of the 2019-nCoV on VNY 2020, it has affected arrivals from other countries too. And while the 2003 SARS epidemic ‘accounted for a drop in international tourist arrivals of almost 9.4 million and a loss of between US$30 billion and $50 billion’, the impact of nCoV could be higher, as China was a much smaller market, both for inbound and outbound travellers, at the time.
It is difficult to see VNY 2020 meet its target of 2 million visitors, already an ambitious figure, but also weighed down by a traditional mindset that has budgeted for a programme more suited to the establishment’s needs than ground reality and travellers’ expectations. A stark example was the highly insensitive VNY rally in Sydney in January, at a time when Australia was being ravaged by massive bushfires. Further, in a time of social media, traditional advertising remains a priority, that too with gaffes, and a row over the aesthetics of the Yeti mascot (which, frankly, should have been taken abroad rather than being placed outside private offices in Kathmandu).
Let’s be honest: travelling inside Nepal can be a pain, with its limited connectivity, bad roads, shoddy bus services, airport delays, and hotel quality. The destinations are worth the effort, but destinations by themselves do not make a tour package. When I asked a Chinese business owner what would it take to bring more tourists to Nepal, he was forthright: Nepal needs better infrastructure. Perhaps it was part of the charm in days gone by—to go to a place without roads, without hotels and without phones—and Nepal served the purpose. But that is not adequate today.
The 2019-nCoV breakout gives us an opportunity to step back from the buzz around Visit Nepal Year. Yes, its commercial impact will be considerable, but it should also tell us about the limitations of our current tourism policy. One example: a few years ago, I travelled to a remote Himalayan valley with a tourism board official, who kept insisting the valley’s residents needed to open up new homestays to welcome tourists, and to put up maps and signs along the trekking route. While both were great suggestions, the official, however, failed to answer how tourists would get there in the first place, for the valley was relatively unknown even inside Nepal. The fact that destinations today competed amongst themselves did not matter to him, for he worked with the notion that tourists would come automatically once provisional infrastructure was in place.
In Up in the Wind, Nepal is projected as a land of spirituality, where Cheng comes to discover her inner self. While the brand value of Nepal in the travel market is excellent, the romanticism associated with the Nepali brand of tourism—mountains, religion and old-world culture—will only serve us so far. Is there a tourism roadmap for 2030? Do we see ourselves becoming a must-visit destination for the rest of the world? Or are we content on things as they are, periodically running year-long promotional events that are simply an exercise for budgetary spend, and opening new homestays along trekking routes barely visited by travellers? We’ve created new destinations like Bardiya and Rara Lake, but that’s just half the picture.
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