Revisiting Visit Nepal 2020Nepali art, literature and music must be promoted alongside mountain tourism.
About a month into Nepal’s tourism year, it came to a halt due to the current Covid-19 pandemic. We were only past a few ‘special events’ such as the Mt Everest Fashion Runway and the Annual Ice Climbing Festival when the virus outbreak hit the travel industry. While a national level tourism campaign was an important step for Nepal in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, the effort was inadequate. The campaign’s marketing that took shape only a few months prior to the end of 2019 not only lacked global outreach but also exhibited Nepal within narrow framings of adventure and spirituality. As international tourism will not resume anytime soon and Visit Nepal 2020 has been officially called off, it is our chance to identify the limitations of the current campaign. We can then rethink our tourism strategy by focusing more on quality tourism that does not compromise Nepal’s image than on quantity.
The tourist perspective of Nepal is not limited to but often driven by a desire to travel to ‘mysterious’ and ‘undiscovered’ parts of the world. Images of empty mountains and fluttering prayer flags are commonly associated with Nepal. Since the expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, Everest is sold as an adventure playground where people come to challenge their physical abilities and set world records, fulfilling the thrill associated with ‘conquering’ the highest mountain in the world. Images of vast lands inhabited by rhinos and elephants are also used to convey the ‘exotic’ and ‘natural’ spirit of the land. These images may be true of Nepal but they are unpeopled, evoking the concept of terra nullius, unoccupied land.
The depiction of empty landscapes masks the local realities of the people and ignores the historical, political and social context that has caused Nepali land to remain the way it is today. The narrow representations of Nepal via tourism advertisements lead to the commodification of land as well as the people who belong there. While the Sherpas have benefitted from mountaineering, they are often referred to as being ‘mountain men’ who help ‘mountaineers’ make their way up Everest; despite the Khumbu region hosting diverse communities and Sherpas doing much more than just climbing mountains.
The Visit Nepal 2020 promotions have been no different from the use of images reinforcing such stereotypical narratives via different media platforms. In addition, the marketing of the campaign has been sluggish with lack of information, inadequate event planning and vague commitments of ‘sustainable’ and ‘community-based’ tourism.
The opening statement of the official website of Visit Nepal 2020 is 'Coming to Nepal is coming to an experience that is only yours'. It may have been written with good intent, but goes beyond the values of the Sanskrit phrase 'Atithi Devo Bhava' meaning guest is God, which Hindus firmly believe in. The hosts are removed from the ‘experience’ that takes place on their land that is now commercialised and advertised for the enjoyment of others. Events such as the Mt Everest Fashion Runway and the ice skating on Gokyo Lake were about creating records for having hosted these events on the highest peak in the world.
International models walk on the ‘ramp’ to promote sustainable fashion on land inhabited by people who may not necessarily be able to afford them, and foreigners with high-end gear are invited to skate on a lake that is culturally significant to the local community. The website also lists the festivals of Nepal and uses images with the motive of luring people to the ‘exoticism’ that Nepal has to offer. For instance, it invites tourists to ‘Dance with the Gods’ by showing a picture of a lakhe dancing but with hardly any description about its cultural relevance.
As the website outlines the campaign's commitment to sustainability, it uses the most bizarre pictures and statements. For instance, there is a picture of three women planting paddy and the caption 'community-based tourism'. This picture gives a local flavour to the popularly used notions of ‘community’ and also attempts to entice tourists to visit the ‘traditional’ land of Nepal, at the expense of the lived realities of the local people. The strategy for two other commitments—going green and climate change—has been described but with no concrete evidence of their implementation.
The deficiency of Visit Nepal 2020 is not due to the manner in which it has been marketed, but due to the motive behind the initiative itself—hosting 2 million tourists within 2020. To revive the tourism industry that was severely hit by the 2015 disaster, it will require more than just reaching a quantifiable target. A preliminary study will enable us to understand our capacities as hosts and locally-driven planning will enhance the tourism experience as well replace the empty rhetoric of a community-based approach.
Nepali art, literature and music must be promoted equally alongside mountain tourism, and the publicity of the campaign should take a more diverse approach to prevent the detrimental impacts of narrow branding. For example, Las Vegas is popularly known as ‘the sin city’ offering ‘adult’ activities, Bangkok is wrongly associated with sex tourism, and Goa is dangerously referred to as the drug capital. While these places have so much more to offer, they remain concealed within such representations.
Nepal could learn from other nations that have successfully hosted national tourism campaigns such as Inspired by Iceland which was launched right after the 2010 volcanic eruption. The campaign was part of a crisis management strategy and involved the entire nation during its launch. Scotland has a yearly tourism theme that welcomes visitors to experience different things every year. Clearly, Nepal’s tourism planning needs to be more inclusive to run a successful and creative campaign. It not only requires national-level assistance but also private sector involvement and local expertise to ensure better planning as well as marketing.
What do you think?
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