Hard-hit tourism industry looks to Nepali adventure seekers for succourThe Tourism Ministry is preparing to present a proposal to the cabinet for its in-principle approval to allow the government to implement a two-day weekend to encourage travel.
With the monsoon starting to peter out, the tourism industry is preparing to welcome the autumn season which, in happier times, would see hordes of adventurers streaming into the country.
The tourism sector has been opened to foreign visitors from October 17, but it will be a different adventure this year. To travel or not to travel? That is the question. However, the domestic tourist movement is already stirring.
“Yes, domestic bookings are coming back. And this trend suggests that we may observe at least 25 percent occupancy this autumn season from domestic tourists alone,” said Biplav Poudel, executive director of the Hotel Barahi in Pokhara. “That’s a beginning.”
Hoteliers in Pokhara and Chitwan said they had started receiving bookings for the upcoming festival season, although in small numbers, which begins in the third week of October. Hotels are being flooded by inquiries from domestic travellers, they said.
“We don’t see foreigners coming in droves this year. But domestic tourism can bail out the industry that is on the edge of collapse,” said Poudel.
He said they were getting lots of inquiries from Nepali business travellers who otherwise would be visiting different foreign lands during the vacation. “People are willing to travel within the country. They are now making their travel plans,” he said.
But in Pokhara, where there are over 1,000 hotels and resorts, spending by domestic visitors alone will not result in adequate revenues for them to survive. As the government has opened trekking and mountaineering activities to foreigners, Pokhara, the gateway to Annapurna base camp and other trekking routes, may draw a small number of adventure seekers, said Poudel. “But it will take time for tourism to fully recover.”
Due to the unpredictability and complexity of Covid-19’s development, international tourism industries are not likely to return to their normal state in the near future.
In order to cope with the situation, the government has also started to promote domestic tourism. The Tourism Ministry is preparing to present a proposal to the cabinet for its in-principle approval to allow the government to implement a two-day weekend—Saturday and Sunday.
The negative impacts of Covid-19 on Nepal’s tourism industry have been huge as millions in the tourism and hospitality sectors are out of a job and multiple hotels have shuttered.
As virus restrictions are gradually eased, hotels and tourist sites are now racing to restart tourism, focusing on local travellers.
“We don’t have another alternative at this time,” said Suman Ghimire, former President of the Regional Hotel Association Nepal Chitwan chapter. “Like in post-earthquake in 2015, we believe domestic tourism will bail out the industry.”
Ghimire, who is the executive director of the Jungle Safari Lodge in Chitwan, said few people were coming to stay at the hotels, but there were tonnes of inquiries for the upcoming festival season.
According to him, hotels and resorts in Chitwan normally accommodate 7,000 people daily, but right now they have been receiving nearly 200 visitors a day. “They are all domestic tourists. It’s a beginning. People have started to plan, and that’s a good sign for the industry.”
Chitwan National Park, the country’s first national park and the top revenue generator among the 20 national parks, wildlife reserves and conservation areas in Nepal, has also opened its doors to visitors.
The park is famed as the home of the one-horned rhino. It was established in 1973 and was granted the status of a World Heritage Site in 1984. It is one of Nepal’s most popular tourist destinations.
There are several lodges inside the national park offering full board accommodation in combination with elephant and jeep safaris, rafting tours and guided jungle walks.
Deepak Raj Joshi, former chief executive officer of the Nepal Tourism Board, said that like in 2015, the revival of the country’s tourism will begin from Nepali visitors.
Nepalis started visiting their own country after the earthquake of 2015, and there is a massive domestic tourist movement.
Apart from traditional leisure destinations like Pokhara and Chitwan, the famous Annapurna Circuit trekking route has been a big draw for domestic adventurers lately. The scenic walking trail along the Annapurna mountain range in central Nepal has been pulling domestic thrill-seekers in droves.
The number of sightseers travelling from Beni to Jomsom by motorcycle has also risen sharply after the construction of the road. Hordes of Nepalis travelled to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. More than 1.55 million tourists visited Lumbini in 2017, and among them, there were 1.25 million domestic visitors.
Rara Lake, the country’s biggest and deepest freshwater lake in Mugu, has also been attracting domestic visitors for the past few years. Until a few years ago, Rara used to receive only a few visitors, but it has been gradually gaining popularity among Nepalis lately.
There are no actual statistics of domestic tourist movement, but according to the Nepal Tourism Board, an estimated 5 million Nepali sightseers take domestic trips annually. The figure is based on ticket sales at national parks, World Heritage Sites and restricted areas in the mountain regions, and the number of tour packages sold.
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.
Nepal should focus on reviving its hard-hit tourism industry by focusing on domestic tourism as well as marketing the country as a safe holiday destination, said Joshi. “The private sector too can implement the two-day weekend being proposed for government employees. That will greatly help the industry to recover.”
The year 2020 was supposed to be a significant year for Nepal’s tourism industry as it had major plans for its ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ campaign. Nepal was expecting some 2 million tourists this year and $2 billion in tourism-related revenue. Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak disrupted the tourism plans.
On the bright side, it will encourage domestic tourism activity, said Poudel. “Domestic tourism plays a significant role in the resilience of the tourism industry, especially in times of crisis,” he said.
Several countries in Asia and the Pacific have started to shift their focus to domestic tourism and how to measure the benefits it provides.