Coming from a largely academic background, new Tourism Board CEO faces a challengeNot many in the tourism industry know Dhananjay Regmi but say his academic work could complement his role as chief of the Tourism Board.
In September 2016, the Nepal Army began a high-risk operation of draining Imja Lake, which sits at an altitude of 5,004 metres. The lake was at high risk of bursting and flooding the villages downstream. A study conducted in 2009 by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development had projected an estimated loss of $11 billion if the lake burst.
Draining the lake’s water safely was a mammoth operation, but by the end of October, the army had successfully completed its operation, averting a major threat. One of the scientists involved in the project, which received widespread coverage in international and local media, was Dhananjay Regmi, a geomorphologist and glaciologist. He was the project’s technical advisor. According to Regmi’s CV, four months after the project, then Chief of Army Staff General Rajendra Chhetri awarded Regmi the Commendation Medal for his contribution to the project.
On January 29, Regmi was appointed chief executive officer of the Nepal Tourism Board, a decision that took many by surprise, given his academic background. The appointment had come after a week-long internal tussle between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Tourism Ministry, as both institutions wanted their own men as chief of the board. Ultimately, Regmi, who had received the highest score among all applicants, prevailed.
A day after Regmi was appointed the CEO, the Post attempted to speak to him regarding his plans for Nepal’s tourism industry, especially as the country is in the midst of its Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.
“At this point in time, it’s too early to comment on my role as CEO,” said Regmi. “I first need to get myself familiar with the different departments within the organisation.”
He refused to speak any more and further attempts to reach him via telephone were unsuccessful.
Officials at the Tourism Board say that Regmi was selected based on his presentation and plans, but for many in the tourism industry, Regmi is an unknown.
Born in 1975, Regmi got his PhD in Environmental Earth Science from Japan’s Hokkaido University in 2006. For most of his life, his work has centred around Nepal’s mountain ecosystems and the impacts of climate change.
Karna Sakya, a veteran tourism entrepreneur, in a telephone conversation with the Post, said that he had no idea who Regmi was until his name was listed as one of the contenders for the board’s CEO, a position that had remained vacant ever since Deepak Raj Joshi’s term ended in December.
“But I also didn’t know who Joshi was until he was appointed CEO,” said Sakya.
Although Regmi is primarily an academic, he has also been involved in the tourism industry. He is chairperson of the Himalayan Research Expedition, a trekking company that organises expeditions for researchers, naturalists and explorers.
“I have met Regmi a few times in the last few years,” said Bibhuti Chand Thakur, president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association Nepal Chapter and managing director of Himalayan Holidays Trekking. “Some of his clients were my clients, and all of them had very good things to say about his work.”
Regmi’s appointment comes at a crucial time for the Nepal Tourism Board and the country’s tourism industry. The country aims to attract two million visitors before the end of 2020. But a month into 2020, things are not looking good.
China, a major tourism market, cancelled all outbound group tours for an indefinite period on January 26, aiming to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Visit Nepal had aimed to attract 350,000 tourists from China, but that number looks increasingly unlikely. Nepal also began the year without a chief at the Nepal Tourism Board.
“I am glad NTB has selected a candidate to lead the organisation. To be honest, I was worried that the organisation would remain headless for some time, which would have been a disaster for the country’s tourism industry given the current global context,” said Sakya. “Now that the organisation has a chief, it should focus on extensively promoting Nepal in other markets like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Thailand.”
But the appointment of someone with limited experience in the country’s tourism industry has raised eyebrows.
“Regmi needs to first understand the Tourism Board’s bureaucracy and then come up with a gameplan on how to make the organisation more effective,” said Sarita Lama, general secretary of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal.
Tourism entrepreneurs who’ve been involved in the industry for long and know the inner workings of the board say that running an organisation like the Nepal Tourism Board is much more complicated than it appears.
“What Regmi has done in the field of scientific research is commendable, but NTB is a very complex organisation with a lot of bureaucratic hassles. There are some people there with very individualistic ideologies which can make achieving results extremely difficult,” said Thakur. “Operating in such an organisation and delivering results will be a huge challenge, a bigger challenge than he has imagined. He shouldn’t hesitate to roll a few heads.”
Suraj Vaidya, the coordinator of the Visit Nepal Secretariat, has also been criticised for not having a background in tourism. Many tourism entrepreneurs have faulted Vaidya, who is an industrialist, for failing to promote Nepal adequately in source markets and for a series of gaffes involving advertisements for Visit Nepal.
“Even though it’s too early to tell how he will execute his role as the CEO, I must say that I am hopeful,” said Sakya. “He has worked as a scientist, that too dealing with climate change, ecosystems and mountains, and as a tourism entrepreneur. The combination of the two is noteworthy.”