We are all touristsResearch shows that domestic tourism is an effective way to help the industry bounce back.
The tourism sector, among others, was hit hard globally by the Covid-19 pandemic and continues to suffer. Experts believe that the industry may not fully recover until 2024. Tourism is trying to rebound, but the pace of recovery is uneven in different parts of the world due to mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and levels of traveller confidence. Amidst this renewed optimism, the Ukraine-Russia war has inflicted a severe blow. International travel will become the latest casualty due to the resultant rise in fuel prices.
When global travel and international tourism have remained subdued for economic and political reasons, the industry should focus on domestic tourism. Thailand has been offering financing assistance to its ailing tourism sector by rolling over existing loans. The Thai government has also started a domestic travel stimulus package that allows any Thai citizen to officially book four-five rooms per night per identity card and book flights that are 40 percent subsidised. Hotels offer special quarantine packages to tourists if they get Covid while arranging a full range of services besides food delivery to the rooms.
Research studies suggested that domestic tourism has been an effective way to help the Malaysian tourism industry become resilient and bounce back by focusing on strategies of more localisation. This is done by addressing all safety concerns, ensuring flight availability and easing travel restrictions. Nepal too has been focusing on domestic tourism. The recent spurt in tourism activities is due primarily to domestic sightseers.
Domestic tourism could provide some relief to the sagging Nepali economy when it is experiencing dwindling currency reserves and declining remittances. Tourism entrepreneurs should devise ways and means to diversify the nature of their offerings. Agro tourism and adventure tourism are two key offerings. However, the adverse and far-reaching ecological impacts of adventure tourism have not been considered. In the agro and nature-based segment, tourists have been flocking to several popular tourist areas to experience local hospitality. This has made home stay a popular choice. Nature-based tourism can be promoted by offering unique experiential activities such as arranging visits to fruit farms, local vineyards or wineries or visits to observe traditional domestic brewing systems and techniques such as kodoko raksi (millet alcohol) besides showcasing local ethnic products such as dhiki-janto.
Based on my conversations with tourism entrepreneurs, virtual heritage tours, permaculture and bio-dynamic farming are some recent initiatives and collective agro activities in the vicinity of Kathmandu. Similarly, endeavours are being made to transform easily accessible places into heritage cities with their own historical significance and involve local youths by training them to design pyang (container made out of bamboo) and similar local handicrafts and artefacts.
Initiatives such as Nepal Art Village in Champi under a public-private partnership model have been undertaken to establish "heritage sites". Newer initiatives are being organised where visitors can calculate their carbon footprint and plant trees to offset environmental damage. Such products and services can be developed in and around densely populated cities to make them a rich combination of adventure, education and environmental protection. Local tourism initiatives in and around the capital city are likely to have higher demand than those that involve staying for a week or even longer in far-flung areas. They have greater appeal as people would like to come out for short periods to avoid the suffocating city air. Nepal is fortunate in this regard as tourists can actually find themselves in nature’s lap amid hills and fields within a radius of 20-25 km. So far, this potential has not been optimally harnessed.
While more and more new hotels are being constructed, service quality has remained a perennial problem. Even in areas where tourists flock in high numbers, the kind of service rendered shows that customer loyalty is not considered. Basic amenities such as hot and cold water are not available in places where they are most needed. Service personnel seem to exhibit a discriminatory mindset toward domestic and foreign tourists.
The average spending by foreign tourists has increased to $65 per day. It is similar for domestic consumers and comparatively higher if we consider the prices charged by decent hotels for their stay and other amenities. Considering the increased spending power domestic tourists that comprise a significant chunk should not be ignored. However, serious thought and due consideration do not seem to have been given to this highly lucrative segment. The time is ripe to invest in training and development activities for service personnel. At present, demand levels might have dampened a bit. But they should become well equipped and prepared to serve customers once operations go into full swing and reach pre-pandemic levels. Unfortunately, students good in academics do not have a favourable inclination to opt for courses in hospitality and join the industry for their careers. Such a mindset and predisposition need to change so that the younger generation is motivated to take up courses related to tourism and hospitality.
The government aims to increase the average stay of tourists by constructing new tourist infrastructure with the support of the private sector. In the absence of specific, detailed and time-bound action plans, it isn’t easy to visualise how these goals can be converted into action commitments. Three years ago, discussions were initiated about mandatorily earmarking two days' leave per week and stipulating a long annual vacation. It isn’t very reassuring to note that nothing has materialised after that.
These two measures alone are not adequate to revive tourism if other measures are not implemented. Diversifying offerings, promoting new ventures such as agriculture with the idea of ecological conservation and showcasing the beneficial impacts of sustainability on the overall economy are some of the pragmatic steps that can be taken. A national-level survey involving all stakeholders of the ecosystem to identify the tastes and preferences of Nepali consumers may be commissioned in earnest so that necessary interventions and timely actions can be taken to target these niche consumer segments effectively.