Paving the path to prosperityInvestment in road infrastructure is a prerequisite to attracting local and international tourists.
In this piece, I explore the relationship between road infrastructure, tourism and economic prosperity, drawing from my personal experiences and global examples. Studies demonstrate a positive relation between the quality of road infrastructure and per capita income. Although the importance of improved roads for facilitating enhanced markets, education and healthcare services cannot be denied, my main focus here is the significance of better roads for robust tourism infrastructure, driving sustainable economic development.
My recent visits to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap Provinces in Cambodia, further highlight the transformative impact of sturdy road connectivity on tourism. In Ho Chi Minh, the efficiency of road travel was apparent. The road distance from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh in Cambodia is 226 kilometres, a journey taking approximately five hours, including an hour for immigration at the border. Similarly, the road distance from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in Cambodia is 318 km, requiring around 4.5 hours of travel. Further from Siem Reap to Bangkok, Thailand, the 400-km road took around eight hours, including a two-hour stop at the border. The quality of the buses, restrooms, excellent parking facilities, and smooth roads made the journey comfortable. Compared to air transport, the lower cost of road travel provided an incentive for budget-conscious tourists to travel freely.
Official statistics underscore the impact of superior infrastructure on tourist numbers. In 2023, Vietnam attracted about 12.6 million international tourists, Cambodia welcomed around 5.43 million international visitors, and Nepal lagged with only 1.14 million foreign tourists. Although Cambodia lacks direct flights from Europe, North America, Australia and South Africa, most visitors to the country opt for connecting flights in Southeast Asia and East Asia. The notable increase in the number of tourists in recent years can be attributed to the commendable state of the country's road infrastructure. Conversations with tourists from Europe, the US and Canada revealed that they stay around 27 days on average. Most visitors expressed a preference for road travel, citing its cost-effectiveness, safety, and convenience compared to air travel.
Roads and economic success
As early as 1999, research documented a strong correlation between infrastructure and productivity in the United States and Western economies, particularly focusing on roads. In the contemporary landscape of vacation experiences, road travel has evolved as a crucial component, offering a unique blend of relaxation, mobility and adventure. Scholars emphasise the integral role of road and transportation infrastructure in fostering tourism and economic development. Beyond facilitating smooth journeys, well-developed road networks contribute to increased business activities, thus elevating local communities' living standards. This connection is exemplified by successful models globally. For instance, a study in Ghana found that a decrease of ten percent in travel duration between 2000 and 2015 would lead to a 1.2 percent rise in the wealth index between 2003 and 2016. Research has also shown the rise of market towns during the early medieval period and the modern era as a resilient mechanism sustaining the long-lasting impacts of the Roman road network.
Another recent research suggests the positive effect of transportation infrastructure on economic growth in China at both aggregate and regional levels over a period from 1990-2017. A study conducted in Kosovo found that the enhancement of road infrastructure in the tourism sector impacts the ability to cover long distances, thereby reducing travel time for tourism. Tourists' selection of commercial destinations primarily relies on accessibility, appeal and arrangement. This illustrates that having a well-developed road infrastructure is essential for attracting a significant influx of tourists.
Countries like India, with substantial investments in road networks, showcase the positive economic impact of such endeavours. India boasts the second-largest road network globally, surpassing China, France, and other nations. To reach its 2025 economic growth target of US$5 trillion, India continues to enhance its infrastructure. In June 2022, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways inaugurated 15 national highway projects worth INR13,585 crores (US$1.7 billion) in Patna and Hajipur, Bihar. Unfortunately, Nepal has struggled to keep pace with its counterparts in road infrastructure development.
The United Nations projects that by the year 2050, around six billion people will live and work in urban settings. There is a pressing need to foster advancements in innovation, intelligent transportation systems and autonomous vehicles to facilitate the safe, sustainable and efficient movement of large populations and goods. Thus, smart roads with integrated technologies contribute to safer travel, efficient traffic management and enhanced overall travel experiences.
The way forward
Although good road infrastructure usually improves the overall tourist experience worldwide, Nepal faces challenges due to its inadequate road conditions, which prevent it from fully realising its potential as a desirable tourist destination. The stark contrast is evident when comparing the smooth roads of Vietnam and Cambodia to the challenging conditions on the route from Kathmandu to Pokhara in Nepal, where a mere 200-kilometer distance can take 8-12 hours to traverse. The disparity in road infrastructure is mirrored in economic statistics.
Nepal, with the lowest road density in South Asia, records a mere 47 km of road per 100 square km (km²) and 2.5 km of road per 1,000 people, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This lags significantly behind neighbouring countries in the region. Nepal's road density remains the lowest in South Asia, raising concerns about the nation's ability to attract and cater to tourists effectively. The lack of efficient road networks impacts international and domestic tourism and hinders overall economic progress.
Nepal must embark on a comprehensive approach to road connectivity, considering engineering efficiency, cost per person and vehicle. The focus should shift towards preventing road accidents and overloads and ensuring roads are constructed based on scientific evidence rather than personal whims. Challenges such as corruption and bureaucratic hurdles are not unique to Nepal. For instance, political meddling in India elevates the expenses associated with road construction and heightens the probability of road disappearance. Such instances have become a possibility and must be averted in our case.
The call is for accountability, proper geological tests and timely planning to ensure capital expenditure on roads aligns with the nation's progress. Efforts to enhance road infrastructure must also prioritise safety. Nepal has witnessed increasing road accidents, often attributed to poor road conditions. Timely action is crucial to prevent roads from becoming hazardous, ensuring the safety of both locals and tourists. Thus, investment in road infrastructure is the basic prerequisite to attracting a large number of tourists both locally and internationally.