Businesses in Thamel catch a chill after Covid-19 scares off foreign touristsTourist arrivals by air to Nepal dropped 21 percent year-on-year in February to 77,064 individuals, according to the Department of Immigration.
Himendra Mohan Kumar
It is early in the afternoon and Thamel’s shopkeepers are vying with one another to grab the attention of the few tourists who are still wandering in its streets. The effects of the outbreak of Covid-19 late last year in China and its spread across the world are now being felt in Kathmandu’s tourist hub, as tourist numbers dwindle amidst a much-vaunted tourism campaign and just ahead of the Spring tourist season.
Sunaina, a salesperson at the Timberland outlet in Thamel who didn’t want to reveal her full name due to fears of reprisal, said that the store has only been making two sales per day since the beginning of February.
“Footfalls have dropped by more than 60 percent,” she said. “At this rate, sustaining the business is going to be very difficult.”
Farrukh Ahmed, who runs the handicraft store Himalayan Arts, echoed Sunaina, saying that his sales had dropped almost 90 percent over the past month.
“Life seems to be playing a cruel joke on us,” said Ahmed. “For most of us in Thamel, the shops are on lease and we have to shell out heavy amounts every month in rent. There are also other fixed costs like staff salaries and utilities and there is no respite from that, whether we have the sales or not.”
Tourist arrivals by air to Nepal dropped 21 percent year-on-year in February to 77,064 individuals, according to the Department of Immigration.
Tourists from countries that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak—China, Spain, Italy, Japan, Iran and South Korea—are no longer eligible for on-arrival visas starting March 10 as the federal government wants to ensure the disease doesn’t spread here. As the winter ends and the Spring tourist season begins, this does not bode well for Thamel’s businesses, which depend heavily on the foreign visitors.
“Most visitors have cancelled their bookings and there are fewer and fewer new bookings,” Debendra Pokharel, operator of the Hotel Nepal Bhoomi in Thamel, told the Post. “It’s obvious that people are scared to travel. At the moment, our hotel has only three occupied rooms out of 20, so you can imagine our situation.”
Occupancy has fallen sharply across the country, with most hotels reporting a fall of over 50 percent in January and February. Even high-end hotels, like Durbarmarg’s Hotel Annapurna, have reported an occupancy of just 40-45 percent, down from 70 percent before the Covid-19 outbreak in China.
This has largely to do with the fact that Chinese tourists are not travelling as much anymore, especially since the Chinese government issued a notice asking travel and tour companies to suspend outbound travel for the time being. Chinese tourists constitute the second-largest group of visitors to Nepal, with 169,543 arrivals in 2019. The government’s Visit Nepal 2020 campaign had aimed to bring in 350,000 Chinese tourists this year, but that number is now unlikely to be met.
With tourist numbers falling, many of Thamel’s support businesses, like money changers, are reporting drastic falls in income.
Prakash Bhattachan, a cashier at Fuji Money Changer, said that their business had dropped by nearly 70 percent.
“We are now changing foreign currency worth only about Rs400,000 daily, down from around Rs1.5 million the same time last year,” said Bhattachan. “It looks like the tourist season will be over by the time the coronavirus scare subsides.”
Even Thamel’s taxi drivers who mostly ferry tourists around the city’s attractions, reported meagre earnings.
“Earlier, I made Rs4,000 per day. Last month, that dropped to around Rs3,300 on average. Since the beginning of March, I am struggling to make a daily earning of Rs3,000, even though I am putting in longer hours at work,” said Suman BK, a taxi driver. “Foreigners are just not coming in adequate numbers and there’s an intense competition to grab those who are here, often leading to heated arguments amongst the cabbies.”
With the tourism hub of Thamel reeling, tourism entrepreneurs are worried, especially as the Covid-19 outbreak shows few signs of abating.
“There is now an existential challenge to mass tourism in the country,” said Ashok Pokharel, president of the Nepal Association of Tour Operators. “Tourism dynamics are changing very fast.”
So far, Covid-19 has spread to 85 countries since it was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. To date, 106,771 infections have been confirmed worldwide, and 3,649 people have been killed by the virus. The majority of cases are still in China, though the rate of new infections and fatalities there has slowed.
As of now, in Nepal, there has only been one reported case of Covid-19.
In the last Cabinet meeting, held on March 1, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had instructed the Tourism Ministry to call off Visit Nepal 2020 in view of the virus outbreak. Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada, who is also the government’s spokesperson, told the press at the weekly Thursday briefing that for now, all programmes, including international promotional activities for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign, have been called off. However, confusion continues to persist as to the status of the tourism campaign.
According to Pokharel, all tourism associations have jointly sent a letter via the Nepal Tourism Board to the government, seeking help. But since many of Thamel’s businesses operate independently, they will have to figure things out for themselves.
“As far as the businesses in Thamel are concerned, they will have to face the consequences,” Pokharel added.