Chitwan receives record visitors but revenues plungeGovernment revenue and foreign exchange earnings will increase only if foreign tourists come, insiders say.
Chitwan National Park received a record high number of visitors in the last fiscal year ended July 16, as domestic safari goers swarmed into the jungle glad to be freed of virus restrictions.
Park spokesperson Ganesh Prasad Tiwari said 190,458 thrill seekers, 155,671 of them Nepalis, visited the park in fiscal 2021-22.
In fiscal 2019-20, the number of visitors was recorded at 187,109, among them 44,623 Nepalis.
Tourist arrivals to Chitwan National Park, located in the Tarai flatlands in south central Nepal, have returned to pre-pandemic levels, officials said.
Foreign tourists stopped coming to Chitwan after the Covid-19 pandemic, but the number of Nepali tourists started increasing. Park data shows that 89,441 Nepalis visited the park in fiscal 2020-21.
“Domestic tourist numbers were not so big before the coronavirus outbreak. But during the pandemic, Nepali tourists emerged as rescuers of the local tourist industry, including resorts and hotels in Chitwan," said Deepak Bhattarai, president of Hotel Association Nepal Sauraha Chapter.
Established in 1973, Chitwan National Park is the country's first national park. Characterised by thick tropical jungle, the park is a habitat for rare wildlife like the one-horned rhinoceros and Bengal tiger. Tourists come from all over the world to see these animals.
Tourists are also attracted to the customs and cultures of local communities like the Tharu and Kumal residing near the protected area. Sightseers tour the national park by jeep and on elephant-back. Canoe rides on the crocodile infested rivers and jungle walks are also immensely popular activities.
In recent times, meetings, seminars and large conventions, including marriage functions, are being held in the hotels around the park.
Biplap Paudel, owner of Barahi Jungle Lodge, said that many big wedding receptions were held at the hotel.
Poudel said that Nepali tourists provided good business at a time when tourists from foreign countries stopped coming because of travel restrictions.
“It was not possible to travel abroad during the pandemic, and these high-spending Nepali tourists came to our hotel," Paudel said.
Bhattarai said that programmes like symposiums, seminars and conventions were held in large numbers. There has also been an increase in the number of Indians coming to Sauraha's hotels for weddings from bordering Indian cities.
Paudel said that attracting foreign tourists to Chitwan would be on top of the agenda now that the pandemic has subsided.
“The promotion of Chitwan National Park among domestic tourists is going well. With Covid-19 getting normalised, more foreigners will come,” Poudel said.
“Nepali tourists might not come in huge numbers, but if tour programmes are created by planning well, there is a possibility that domestic tourists with money to spend will always come to visit the park," he said.
Most of the domestic tourists who come to the park enjoy elephant, jeep and boat rides. Baghmara Buffer Zone Community Forest near Sauraha operates both elephant safari and boat trips.
Jit Bahadur Tamang, president of Baghmara Community Forest, says there are records of repeat domestic tourists coming six or seven times for elephant and boat safari.
“I think some new tour programmes should be added in Sauraha," Tamang said. "Domestic tourists visiting the park should be well informed about the features of wildlife tourism, the importance of wild animals and their habits."
Rishi Tiwari, president of the United Elephant Cooperative run by elephant keepers who conduct elephant safari in the community forest, says more than 150,000 domestic tourists have visited the park.
“The number of people who bought entry tickets to visit the park has gone up. There are other places in Sauraha which do not require tickets, and they have been getting more tourists too,” Tiwari said.
"There are other places in Sauraha where you don't need an entry ticket," Tiwari said. “More than 200,000 domestic tourists visit Sauraha annually.”
Tiwari, who is also a hotelier, says it is necessary to offer new programmes in addition to the usual jungle safari and tribal dances by studying the interest of domestic tourists.
“Nepalis are interested in nightlife. But this is not Sauraha's speciality, and something needs to be done about that," Tiwari said.
Although the spending habits of Nepali and foreign tourists are about the same, insiders say government revenue and foreign exchange earnings will increase only if foreign tourists come. The tax rates for domestic and foreign tourists are very different.
Chitwan National Park earned Rs294 million in revenue in the fiscal year 2019-20. But in the last fiscal year, even with the record number of tourists, the park earned only around Rs115 million, insiders said. Revenues plunged because of fewer foreign tourist arrivals.
“It is good that the number of domestic tourists is increasing, but foreign tourists are important for earning revenue,” Bhattarai said. "Future tourism plans should be made considering these things. The government, hotel associations and tourism professionals should keep that in mind."