Confronted with near-collapse, tourism industry looks inwardsForeign tourist arrivals are expected to halt completely this week, leading hotels and airlines to look to attract domestic tourists with cut-rate prices.
Faced with a near-collapse wrought by the Covid-19 outbreak, Nepal’s tourism industry is scrambling for survival.
In an attempt to salvage whatever is left of the country’s tourism in the wake of the government’s decision to stop issuing on-arrival tourist visas for all countries, many are hoping that domestic tourists, lured by deep discounts, could help keep the industry afloat.
This may prevent bankruptcy but there are opposing voices within the industry itself who say domestic tourism might not be a good idea either, as health agencies have recommended social distancing and self-quarantine measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Airlines have been cutting prices to levels unseen before and hotels are following suit.
“Imagine flight tickets at Rs1,000 and rooms at a good hotel in Pokhara also for Rs1,000. That’s bound to happen,” Aditya Baral, country director of travel booking website XcelTrip Nepal, told the Post.
For an industry already reeling from the global impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak, the final blow came on Thursday when the government decided to temporarily stop issuing on-arrival tourist visas to all countries and put an end to all spring mountaineering expeditions, including Everest ascents. The spring season is the most lucrative time for Nepal’s tourism industry.
But on Sunday, with the spring season underway, Nepal’s sole international airport was deserted. The sidewalk cafes at Pokhara’s lakeside have now emptied out, the tourists queuing up for jungle safari in Chitwan National Park have disappeared, and there are no yaks carrying tourist cargo to the Everest region.
“This is perhaps the most extensive hit we’ve taken in the travel industry,” said Baral, who is also a former director of the Nepal Tourism Board. “The effects have been more extensive than that of the earthquakes of 2015.”
Airlines, hotels, trekking agencies, restaurants, helicopter companies and other service providers are bracing for the worst as no foreign tourists are expected from the middle of the week. The industry is instead looking inwards
On Sunday, XcelTrip launched a special campaign ‘Ramro Pokhara, Ghumau Pokhara’ in coordination with more than two dozen hotels, offering discounts galore.
“The primary objective of the campaign is to support domestic tourism in this lean and difficult time,” said Baral
Some hotels are giving away complimentary rooms with the booking of two or more nights while others are offering discounts of up to 50 percent.
Premium hotels that were selling rooms at Rs 15,000 per night are now offering rooms at Rs 6,000 now, said Baral.
In Chitwan, another popular tourist hub, occupancy has dropped to 20 percent from peak occupancy of 80 percent.
Suman Ghimire, chairman of the Sauraha Regional Hotel Association, said that hotel and resort rates have plunged to new lows.
“Of course there is no demand,” said Ghimire. “At this time, rates may come below Rs1,000 per night even in a resort with good facilities.”
The association is holding a meeting on Wednesday in Kathmandu with its apex body, the Hotel Association of Nepal, to discuss crisis management.
“We have also planned to launch special discounts after Wednesday’s meeting,” said Ghimire. “It is uncertain how long the struggle would continue. Some hotels may find themselves facing closure due to the decline in customers.”
Pokhara and Chitwan may be able to attract domestic tourists but hoteliers in the Everest region are likely to face a tougher time as the region is considered one of the most expensive destinations in the world to visit.
“There are no trekkers at all. It’s hard to believe but we don’t have any option,” said Ang Tashi Sherpa, proprietor of the Sherpa Lodge and Coffee Shop in Lukla. “During this season, there used to be 160 daily takeoffs and landings at Lukla airport. On Sunday, there were only 12 takeoff and landings, and most of them were cargo flights.”
According to Sherpa, tourism in the Everest region is so dependent on foreigners that there are no mechanisms to attract Nepalis.
“It’s a different world,” he said. “My lodge and coffee shop used to do a minimum business of Rs150,000 per day, that’s Rs4.5 million monthly. That’s all gone.”
Hotels aren’t the only industry taking a hit. Airlines too are facing the worst time in history and are offering massively discounted tickets.
For instance, the normal one-way airfare on a Kathmandu-Bhadrapur flight is Rs9,100, but last week, travellers were able to buy a ticket for as low as Rs2,800. This week, on Sunday, it further dropped to Rs2,200.
Airfare to Pokhara dropped to Rs1,800 on Sunday, from the normal fare of Rs5,000.
Birendra Bahadur Basnet, managing director of Buddha Air, Nepal’s largest private airline in terms of passenger carriage, in a recent interview with the Post, had said that offering low fares may encourage domestic tourism, which could bail out the hospitality and airlines industry.
According to a World Travel and Tourism Council research report, domestic tourists spent 56 percent of the total Rs240.7 billion revenue generated by the tourism industry in 2018.
Nepalis only started travelling heavily across the country after the earthquakes of 2015. Apart from traditional leisure destinations like Pokhara and Chitwan, the famous Annapurna Circuit trekking route has been a big draw for domestic adventurers.
But according to some industry insiders, the global spread of the coronavirus, which has encouraged many people to cancel their trips, may have an impact on the movement of domestic tourists too. The government’s warning asking Nepalis to stay away from crowds and to limit movement, combined with rising fears over the Covid-19 spread, could lead even Nepali tourists to stay indoors.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of March 28, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. As of Wednesday, Covid-19 had spread to 199 countries and infected more than 596,349 people with 27,343 deaths. In South Asia, Pakistan has reported the highest number of infections at 1,373, with 11 deaths. While India has reported 667 confirmed cases with 20 deaths. Nepal has so far reported four cases, in which one patient recovered.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.