Tourists wait to get out amid virus surge, lockdownThere are around 2,000 foreign nationals currently in Kathmandu who are trying to leave, officials say. Flights are suspended until May 31 midnight.
Foreign tourists are waiting anxiously to get out of Kathmandu after the government extended the lockdown by two weeks, and cancelled all flights following a surge in coronavirus infections.
Officials at the Nepal Tourism Board said their mobile hotlines were ringing constantly with calls from frantic tourists asking about repatriation or charter flights.
Nepal's tourism promotional body, which has activated its crisis management and communications unit to help tourists, said the visitors were worried they might be stuck in the country while it faces the brutal second wave of the pandemic that has left a trail of sickness and death.
Nepal has called for international assistance as it grapples with oxygen shortages and soaring infections threaten to push the healthcare system to breaking point.
On Wednesday, the country reported 9,238 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, taking the nationwide infection tally to 422,349.
Foreign embassies have stepped up efforts to repatriate stranded trekkers and mountaineers.
“We are holding discussions to find an appropriate way to repatriate foreigners stranded in Nepal,” said Rajan Pokhrel, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
Pokhrel hinted that the government was unlikely to allow airlines to conduct charter flights. “We are discussing allowing ‘special flights’ at the request of foreign embassies,” Pokhrel told the Post.
He said that they were looking at the situation cautiously. “If the virus caseload drops within the next three weeks, we are ready to reopen commercial passenger flights,” he said. “But as of now, everything is uncertain.”
According to the civil aviation regulator, the United States embassy has requested a special repatriation flight for May 16. Other embassies may follow suit.
A Qatar Airways official said the Nepal government and the embassies would coordinate to arrange special repatriation flights.
“We have planned at least four such flights in May, and are waiting for the green light from the government,” said the unnamed official. Qatar Airways has planned flights for May 16, 20, 25 and 31 subject to government approval.
Abdullah Tuncer Kececi, general manager of Turkish Airlines, the only carrier offering direct connections to Europe, said they were planning to operate repatriation flights after receiving permission from the Nepal government.
According to civil aviation officials, the government may not permit charter flights as demanded by the airlines and Nepal’s travel agencies as controversies had surfaced last year over exorbitant airfares.
Amid last year's travel rush, airlines had charged as much as $3,500 for a one-way ticket to Europe, six times the normal airfare. Subsequently, the Tourism Ministry capped airfares on international charter repatriation flights.
Nepal ordered a second lockdown on April 29 for two weeks as a public health measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19. International flights were to and from Nepal were suspended from May 6 midnight.
On Tuesday, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal extended the restriction on scheduled international commercial passenger flights to and from Nepal until May 31 midnight.
Two weekly flights on the Kathmandu-Delhi sector—one by Nepal Airlines and another by Air India—will continue under an air bubble arrangement between Nepal and India.
The prohibitory orders in the Kathmandu Valley that have been in place since April 29 have been extended until May 27.
As per the Nepal Tourism Board, there are around 2,000 foreign nationals currently in Kathmandu who are waiting for immediate evacuation.
Another 5,000 tourists are estimated to be in different trekking and mountaineering destinations, and they are likely to return in the next two weeks before the monsoon season begins in Nepal, the board said.
“We are expecting more trekkers and mountaineers to return to Kathmandu from various remote mountain regions in the next two week as the tourist season is coming to an end,” said Shradha Shrestha, manager at the Nepal Tourism Board.
The board said that this year Nepal had not allowed free independent travellers or solo trekkers and only allowed group trekkers, so they are all being taken care of by their travel agencies.
According to Shrestha, Nepali citizens and foreigners entering the Kathmandu Valley from any entry point should mandatorily stay in quarantine for five days in any of the hotels approved by the Tourism Ministry.
The list of the approved hotels can be viewed at: https://www.welcomenepal.com/plan-your-trip/covid-19.html.
After the five-day quarantine, a PCR test should be done. The cost of accommodation and three meals daily has been fixed as Rs3,000 nett per day.
There are currently 1,437 European nationals who arrived in Nepal between January 1 and May 5 and have not returned to their country, the board said.
According to the Department of Immigration, Nepal received 22,450 foreign tourists by air in April. Among the total arrivals, 13,202 came from India, 2,740 from the United States, 803 from China and 685 from Russia.
Everest climbing, which did not happen last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was reopened this year after Nepal reported a dramatic decline in cases, and the country resumed international flights and threw open its doors to tourists.
But as spring arrived, caseloads started to soar. By the time Nepal was engulfed by the second wave, around 1,500 climbers had already gathered at Everest base camp.
The first summit was made on May 7 with 12 Nepali rope fixing climbers reaching the top.
On Tuesday morning, around 80 climbers, among them a 12-member team of the Bahrain Royal Guard including Prince Mohammed Hamad Mohammed Al Khalifa reached the peak of Everest, Mira Acharya, director at the Department of Tourism, told the Post from Everest base camp.
“In the first window of good weather that has been expected to last until Thursday morning, we have targeted the completion of an expedition of 200 climbers.”
According to Acharya, Nepali Mingma Tenji Sherpa created a world record by doing the fastest double summit of Everest on Tuesday.
Mingma Tenji, who was in the rope-fixing team, reached the summit on May 7, came down to base camp, and climbed to the top again on Monday morning. “He completed the double summit in four days,” said Acharya.
Before Mingma Tenji, Indian mountaineer Anshu Jamsenpa held the record of being the first person in the world to scale Everest twice in one season, accomplishing the double summit in five days. But she still holds the record for fastest dual ascent by a woman.