Clipped wingsAs tourism grows globally, infrastructure bottleneck could stunt growth of Nepal’s major industry
Tourism has been one of the most resilient sectors in the global economy. It accounted for 10.4 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017, while growing from the previous year at 4.6 percent—outpacing growth in the global economy for the seventh successive year. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, international tourist arrivals hit a record 1.32 billion. Remarkably, Asia, and especially South Asia, has been a leader in the growth in tourism.
Tourist arrivals in South Asia grew by 10 percent in 2017, second only to Mediterranean Europe. China and India represented the largest number of trips recorded; the residents in the two countries took 4.53 and 1.54 billion trips respectively. Tourism’s contribution to South Asia’s GDP overall is forecasted to grow by 6.7 percent in the next 10 years, having it rank within the top five in the world. This, even as Nepal ranks outside the top 100. It is not that Nepal is not growing year by year, with the country recording almost a million tourists and the sector contributing Rs195 billion to the GDP (a substantial increase from 2016’s Rs177 billion) last year. The problem is that it is not growing fast enough, and definitely not at the rate of its peers in Asia. A major issue contributing to Nepal’s underperformance is the infrastructure bottleneck that constricts tourist arrivals.
Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) handled 3.88 million passengers in 2017, a record for the country’s only international airport. The year-by-year increase in passenger numbers at TIA (barring a dip in 2015 due to the earthquake), shows the potential in tourist growth. Yet, the airport authorities themselves warn of the bottleneck affecting growth for the next few years. Raj Kumar Chhetri, general manager at TIA, has said that the industry has to wait at least a year to avail of new facilities such as added parking bays for incoming aircraft and conveyor belts of incoming luggage.
The situation is severe enough that passengers at peak times take more than two hours to leave the airport. International arrivals have to wait in one line to be cleared by security, only to be stuck waiting for their luggage at the few baggage belts available. This situation on-ground occurs after the flight that the passenger arrived in is, more often than not, delayed by air traffic congestion and has to wait for its turn to land. All this does not represent Nepal well—a country extolled by travel guides in the New York Times and Lonely Planet as a must-visit destination.
But airport flaws do more than just put-off travellers. The lack of parking bays has also blocked the growth of the Nepali airline sector. Already, eight out of the top 10 airliners carrying passengers to and from Nepal are foreign; meaning that most profits generated will be transferred to their shareholders abroad. Meanwhile, BB Airways, a Nepali start-up, has been barred from operating its single jet aircraft to ferry passengers from TIA, as authorities cite the lack of enough parking bays to hold more aircraft. Paradoxically, BB’s aircraft that was purchased from Nepal Airlines sits idle at TIA itself, occupying one of the nine parking bays available. Forgetting all past mistakes and mismanagements, it is clear that Nepal is currently lacking in airport infrastructure. Let’s hope that the new government makes amends before Nepal misses the opportunity to tap into the global tourism growth.