Visit Nepal 2020 has already suffered setbacks but it can be salvaged, say tourism entrepreneursThe tourism campaign should look beyond China and India if it wishes to attract enough tourists to meet the 2 million arrivals target.
A month into the year and a pall of gloom hangs over the Visit Nepal 2020 tourism campaign. The coronavirus outbreak and two tourism-related disasters have dampened hopes for increased arrivals in a year that hopes to attract 2 million tourists to Nepal. But the campaign can still be salvaged if there is a change of tack from the country’s tourism authorities, say tourism entrepreneurs.
The biggest blow to Visit Nepal 2020 has so far been the novel coronavirus outbreak, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has since spread across the world, infecting thousands and killing at least 361 people. Nepal had hoped to attract at least 350,000 Chinese tourists over the year, but in the wake of the outbreak, China has asked travel companies to temporarily suspend all outbound tours.
More than 40 percent of hotel bookings by Chinese tourists for February have been cancelled, and cancellations are expected to keep rising in the days ahead, according to hoteliers.
Flights to and from China have also been cancelled, as the country scrambles to contain the virus, even though it has already spread to 20 countries since it was first discovered in December. Tibet Airlines has temporarily cancelled its Xi’an-Kathmandu flights while Himalaya Airlines, a Nepal-China joint venture, has temporarily suspended flights to four Chinese cities, except for Beijing. China Southern Airlines and Sichuan Airlines have halved their flight frequencies to Nepal.
Until now, Nepal has only had one confirmed case of the coronavirus—a 32-year-old Nepali man who had returned from Wuhan. The patient, however, has disputed the authorities’ claim that he ever had the virus.
Hotelier Karna Sakya, national coordinator of Visit Nepal 1998, believes that China will be able to control the virus in the next few weeks.
“Tourism is a never-ending and ever-changing phenomena,” said Sakya. “Across our seven hotels in Nepal, the occupancy levels currently range between 30 percent and 40 percent, and our tourist season is going to be starting soon. I remain hopeful that this setback can be overcome, although it may take some time.”
According to Sakya, Visit Nepal 2020 can still be salvaged, but given that the Nepal Tourism Board and the Visit Nepal Secretariat change tack. Relying on the traditional markets of India and China has circumscribed Nepali tourism within a small area when it should be looking farther afield, say entrepreneurs.
“Nepal should start targeting non-resident Indians spread worldwide and also travellers from North America and Europe,” said Abdullah Kececi, Nepal country manager for Turkish Airlines. “Sometimes, crises can become opportunities.”
Deepak Raj Joshi, former chief of the Nepal Tourism Board, agrees. “We need to move on,” Joshi told the Post. “Instead of China, we should now focus on wooing tourists from India, Bangladesh, the Middle East and Europe to get closer to our targets.”
But Nepal has an image problem, which has only been exacerbated by news of the coronavirus’ presence in the country. In January alone, two disasters involving tourists have already invited much negative press. On January 19, four South Korean trekkers went missing in the Annapurna region after heavy snowfall. Their bodies have yet to be discovered but they are all presumed dead.
Again, on January 21, eight Indian tourists suffocated to death in a resort in Daman after lighting a gas heater to keep themselves warm at night. Indians constitute nearly a third of all tourists to Nepal.
Many entrepreneurs say that promotions in key source markets have been lacking, and have done little to assuage the concerns that visitors might have.
Advertising has been slow to take off, with just a handful of marketing campaigns in the UK and more recently, in Malta. The Visit Nepal Secretariat, an independent body that coordinates the tourism campaign, has stuck to traditional means of advertising, like subway stations and on the backs of buses, and has largely ignored social media and digital advertising.
According to Yogendra Sakya, national coordinator for Visit Nepal 2011, the authorities need to promote Nepal vigorously on social media and tell the world the efforts the country is undertaking to serve international tourists.
“Information needs to be provided on existing and new facilities that are being built for tourists,” said Yogendra. “Special fares and discounts need to be advertised heavily on social media.”
According to Yogendra, the Tourism Ministry is currently in talks with private domestic airlines to ensure that there are uniform airfares for everybody, whether local or tourist. Currently, tourists pay nearly double the local rates.
Ensuring that tourists feel like they are not getting cheated is one way to attract visitors back to the country, but that is only possible once Nepal focuses on improving its quality of service and invests in upgrading its creaky infrastructure, said Kececi, the Turkish Airlines official.
The focus on numbers is actually harming the tourism campaign, say entrepreneurs. Instead of providing quality, there is a push to meet an arbitrary target that is largely unrealistic.
Tourist arrivals to Nepal slowed in 2019 after three years of solid double-digit growth, raising concerns over the country’s ability to meet Visit Nepal 2020’s target. Foreign tourist arrivals grew by a marginal 2 percent to 1.19 million last year, according to statistics from the Department of Immigration.
This means that there were only 24,119 more visitors than the preceding year, which puts the country a long way off from reaching the 2 million target. Nepal will need to achieve a growth rate of nearly 70 percent to reach that figure, which is highly unlikely, say tourism officials.
“In the backdrop of a global scourge, foreign tourist arrivals are definitely going to be impacted, but we don’t know yet how severe it is going to be,” said Ashok Pokharel, president of the Nepal Association of Tour Operators.
Joshi, the former chief executive of the Nepal Tourism Board, said the government is already mulling over declaring 2020-30 as a ‘decade of tourism’ by using 2020 as a base year.
But despite all the setbacks, Suraj Vaidya, coordinator of the Visit Nepal Secretariat, remains optimistic.
“As of now, we are moving ahead to try our utmost to make this campaign a success,” Vaidya told the Post in a text message. “We will leave no stone unturned to achieve our mission.”