Tourism and hospitality industry slams restrictions while political rallies flourishThe government has been placing barriers in the name of opening the country to tourists, insiders say.
On February 5, in what has been termed a political showing-off, the Nepal Communist Party faction led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli held a gathering of its supporters in the capital and claimed 200,000 people were there. The actual number was estimated to be around 50,000.
On February 10, the rival faction led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal held its own counter rally, and bragged that 500,000 people took part, two and a half times more than Oli's crowd. Observers said not more than 50,000 attended the Dahal-Nepal meet.
Health experts said Oli’s February 13 rally in Butwal made a mockery of government health protocols with tens of thousands of people swarming the venue in a display of the ruling party’s strength.
The Oli-led faction is scheduled to host more gatherings in Janakpur, Biratnagar, Surkhet and Pokhara in the days ahead. The Dahal-Nepal fraction may follow suit.
Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations have been erupting across Nepal with the two factions of the Nepal Communist Party engaging in shouting matches following the premature dissolution of Parliament by Prime Minister Oli on December 20.
The country is still fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, and officials have been tirelessly issuing guidelines to maintain social distancing and wear a mask. But these safety precautions were thrown to the winds by the marchers at the political rallies in the Kathmandu Valley.
Tourism entrepreneurs have been asking what the point is in restricting tourists when mass gatherings are being held across the country—most of them by the ruling party.
“The irony is that the government has been controlling the entry of foreign tourists into the country, even if they follow the safety protocols, as it believes that they may spread the virus,” said tourism entrepreneur Biswesh Shrestha, managing director of Shuang Qi Tour, which mostly handles Chinese tour groups.
“When tens of thousands of people can freely march through the streets, why is the government imposing quarantine for foreign tourists? There is no logic in it,” he said, speaking at an interaction here on Thursday.
Currently, all visitors to Nepal above age five must have a negative PCR test obtained not more than 72 hours before departure, according to the Department of Immigration.
A mandatory seven-day hotel quarantine, with a second negative PCR test on the fifth day after arrival, is required. Trekkers and mountaineers must also have insurance coverage worth $5,000.
“These are old health protocols and need to be changed as the situation is different now,” said Shrestha, adding that none of the tourists coming to Nepal abides by the rules. “No one is monitoring them.”
The coronavirus crisis resulted in an 80.78 percent drop in tourist arrivals in 2020, making it the worst year-on-year fall since Nepal opened to the outside world in the 1950s.
According to the statistics of the Department of Immigration, only 230,085 foreign tourists visited Nepal last year, about the same number that came in 1986. Most of them arrived before the country slapped entry restrictions on March 20.
The year 2021 started on a disappointing note. Nepal received less than 9,000 foreign visitors in January.
According to a Nepal Tourism Board survey, nearly 300,000 people directly employed in the tourism industry lost their jobs during the pandemic. Among them, more than 88,000 were in restaurants, followed by 67,000 in hotels and 51,000 in the trekking and mountaineering sectors.
On March 12, 2020, the government decided to stop issuing on-arrival tourist visas to nationals of all countries besides cancelling spring mountaineering expeditions including those to Everest. The decision came a day after the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, and urged countries to take precautionary measures. Nepal announced a completed lockdown on March 24, 2020.
Prabin Bahadur Pandey, vice-president of Hotel Association Nepal, said that tourism entrepreneurs had explained the problems facing the tourism industry and recommended appropriate solutions too. “But the government hasn't bothered to implement even a single suggestion."
Pandey said, "The political changes that automatically change authority have made things worse now. We have been pleading with the government to open the doors wide, but many restrictions are in place.”
Three weeks ago, Tourism Minister Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal had said that Nepal was considering allowing unrestricted entry to vaccinated tourists in a bid to boost the morale of the moribund tourism industry ahead of the upcoming spring peak season.
There would be no quarantine and coronavirus insurance requirements, and all visitors would need to produce is proof of having had the shots. Many countries have started issuing vaccine certificates or vaccine passports to international travellers.
Dhakal said the ministry had also recommended resuming issuing on-arrival visas to all tourists at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport.
“But all that has remained on paper only,” said tourism entrepreneurs.
Dhananjay Regmi, chief executive officer of the Nepal Tourism Board, too believes that the government has not helped the industry to recover. “We demand and suggest one thing, but the government instead creates complications.”
According to Regmi, the private sector has been demanding to set up a PCR centre at Kathmandu's airport since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but all plans fail in the end as the government becomes least bothered.
Last October, Nepal opened the door a crack for trekkers and mountaineers, nearly seven months after the country imposed a complete lockdown.
In December, the government restored all tourist visas. But on-arrival visas have been provided at Tribhuvan International Airport only to representatives and families of diplomatic missions, United Nations agencies, international organisations and non-resident Nepalis.
“The government still bars free independent travellers from going trekking. Foreign visitors have to come in a group, and they need to have recommendations of trekking companies if they want to walk the mountain trails,” according to Nepal Tourism Board officials.
“That’s actually placing a barrier in the name of opening the country to tourists.”