Domestic visitors cheer up Sauraha's tourism industryBut the jungle safari destination needs foreign tourists to return to achieve a full recovery, hoteliers say.
Domestic tourists are coming to Sauraha in droves, and filling up the hotels as the monsoon ends and the festival season begins.
Hoteliers say they are receiving encouraging bookings after a two-year slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to mass domestic tourism which is flourishing due to increased disposable income.
But Sauraha, popular as a jungle safari destination, is still waiting for foreign tourists to return as the infrastructure resulting from the construction boom in the area will not be viable with domestic visitors only, hoteliers say.
According to an Asian Development Bank report, Southeast Asian countries have been particularly cautious in reopening their borders to international travellers amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and international tourism has collapsed as a result. The economic and social consequences have been severe.
The report said that Covid-19 should be used as a reset to strike a better balance between domestic and international tourism, so they complement each other and lead to a robust and sustainable tourism industry.
“For inbound tourism to be successful and sustainable in the long run, domestic tourism needs to thrive as well,” the report said, adding that domestic tourism can help to increase respect for the environment, attract young people to work in the sector, and attract entrepreneurs and investors.
As uncertainty prevails over the growth of international visitors with experts warning of a possible third wave of Covid-19, tourism entrepreneurs in Chitwan are happy to host however many domestic tourists they are getting.
“While the number of foreign tourists is almost zero, we have been receiving more than five domestic tourists daily,” said Ganesh Poudel, proprietor of the Hotel Jungle Villa in Jagatpur, Chitwan.
“It’s the beginning. We are expecting the numbers to improve as the holiday season has just started.” According to him, his resort received its first foreign booking on Saturday.
Nepal on September 23 threw away the seven-day quarantine requirement and resumed issuing on-arrival visas to all vaccinated foreign travellers in a bid to bring its virus-ravaged tourism industry back to life.
Visitors should have received their last dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at least 14 full days prior to entering Nepal. Those who are not vaccinated or partially vaccinated will not get on-arrival visas. They have to get their entry permits from Nepali diplomatic missions, and also spend 10 days in quarantine in government-listed hotels.
Subodh Pradhan, proprietor of the Sarang Wildlife Sanctuary in Meghauli, said the tourism industry in Chitwan was still crawling. “The number of domestic tourists has increased, mostly during the weekend; but so far, revenue flow has not been good enough for hotels.”
He added, “The industry might suffer if foreign arrivals do not increase. We won't see a recovery for another year. But the domestic tourists have bailed out the industry in difficult times.”
Nepal’s first national park—Chitwan National Park located in the southern Tarai—used to receive 185,644 foreign tourists annually before Covid-19.
The national park is home to 125 tigers and 605 one-horned rhinos, making it a must-see destination for wildlife enthusiasts. The rich flora and fauna attract hordes of adventure seekers which has turned Chitwan into the most profitable park in Nepal.
Jeep safari, elephant safari, boating and bird watching on the banks of the Narayani and Rapti rivers are the major adventure activities that attract visitors.
There are hundreds of hotels in Sauraha.
Deepak Bhattarai, president of Hotel Association Nepal Chitwan chapter, said, "Many Nepalis visited Chitwan during last year’s festival, and the tourism industry has the same expectation for this year too. We are expecting Indian visitors this time as the borders have been opened. But we don’t see an immediate recovery in foreign tourist arrivals this year.”
Baghmara Community Forest near Sauraha, which is famous for elephant safaris, used to receive around 400 tourists a day during normal times.
“Now, up to 40 domestic tourists go on elephant safari daily,” said Jit Bahadur Tamang, chairman of the community forest. “That indeed is a good sign.”
Lokendra Adhikari, information officer of Chitwan National Park, said that there were 89,601 domestic visitors to the park in the last fiscal year. In the previous fiscal year 2019-20, the number of domestic tourists visiting the national park totalled 89,441.