Preparations for autumn tourist season begin amid the pandemic but challenges remainA dedicated PCR test centre at the airport giving reports within hours is a must to avoid mandatory quarantine obligations, industry insiders say.
Mingma Sherpa, one of the biggest mountaineering expedition operators in the country, has at least 100 bookings from climbers to attempt just the 8,163-metre Mt Manaslu in the upcoming mountaineering season that begins in late September. The autumn season ends in November.
But he is still waiting for clarity from the government on the paperwork tourists require so that he can inform his clients.
“The government needs to tell us what documents foreign nationals have to present for visa applications and to enter the country,” said Sherpa, who employs 800 mountain guides and other workers who are now either furloughed or are living in their mountain villages without any income.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced the world, including Nepal, to an unprecedented halt, with tourism being one of the sectors worst affected. Travellers have seen their dream holidays postponed, if not cancelled, hotels were forced to shut their doors for months, and employees in the industry have been furloughed or have even lost their jobs entirely.
Entrepreneurs, however, say they are seeing a silver lining.
With trekking, mountaineering, hotels and restaurants formally resuming operations on Thursday, following the government’s decision of July 20, they are optimistic that the tourism business will pick up and workers will get their jobs back.
“The industry has started bookings and it’s a good sign. For destinations like us, it's all about building trust among those who are ready to travel again,” said Sherpa.
Nepal’s tourism sector generated Rs240.7 billion in revenue, which is almost 8 percent of the GDP, and supported, directly or indirectly, more than 1.05 million jobs in 2018, according to the annual World Travel and Tourism Council report.
Although the sector has been officially opened, the government still needs to decide what tourists need to do before they are allowed inside the country and let them know the safety measures in place before they have the confidence to visit Nepal.
Scheduled international and domestic flights will begin from August 17, and with hotels, trekking and mountaineering permitted to resume operations from Thursday, in order to help prepare themselves for a “new normal tourism” focused on safety more than anything else.
“Now, the industry is keenly watching the government’s upcoming decision on how to allow foreign tourists travelling to Nepal–whether just a negative test certificate will be enough or there will be a period of mandatory quarantine on arrival,” said Binayak Shah, senior vice president of the Hotel Association of Nepal.
In many countries that have reopened their tourism, travellers have to undertake a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at the airport on arrival, unless the traveller has a PCR test certificate issued within the last seven days of arrival, stating they are free of the coronavirus.
“If we can set up a dedicated PCR test centre at the airport and produce reports within a couple of hours, quarantine obligations can be avoided,” said Ashok Pokharel, president of the Nepal Association of Tour Operators.
“We have been hearing that the government is going to make it mandatory for tourists to stay for six days in quarantine at a hotel,” said Pokharel. “Nobody will come to Nepal to sleep, wake up, and eat in a hotel room for six days.”
Pokharel and others suggest having a PCR test centre at the airport as the best option to reduce hassles, costs and time.
“Either the Nepal Tourism Board or the private sector should take the lead,” he said. “We have the option of charging or not charging visitors for the PCR tests.”
In most countries, passengers are responsible for the cost of the test.
Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane, joint-secretary at the Tourism Ministry, said that discussions are ongoing regarding the test and quarantine modality.
“The government will soon decide on the requirement,” Lamichhane told the Post.
He said that as of now, the government has recommended a mandatory seven-day quarantine for the tourists.
He, however, was quick to add that “it’s not final yet.”
“Though it’s not official, we have heard that the government will provide PCR reports for the tourists six days after swab collection, and until the report arrives, tourists are required to stay in quarantine. Why couldn’t reports be issued within a few hours?” said Shah of the Hotel Association of Nepal. “It’s just a hassle that would discourage them from coming.”
The government’s decision, which is still not official, comes as a big worry for an industry that was hopeful for the autumn season following the wiped out spring season since the government stopped international flights from March 20 and put the country under a lockdown from March 24. The lockdown was lifted on July 21, with some of the restrictions still in place.
The Nepal Tourism Board has already introduced some health safety protocols to be followed by all tourism organisations concerning hospitality, trekking and mountaineering.
“I think, if every company strictly follows health protocols, travelers will feel safe,” said Shah.
Of the 1.2 million tourists that visit Nepal annually, the autumn season accounts for a third, with most coming for trekking. In autumn, mountaineers prefer climbing Manaslu and the 8,167-metre Dhaulagiri and smaller peaks as Mt Everest is considered too risky to climb.
As lockdowns are gradually lifted across the world and countries are reopening their borders to international travel, the travel and tourism sector globally, including Nepal, is finally ready to kick-start recovery.
“Decisions have to be made early. The six to seven day mandatory quarantine is harsh. It can be brought down to two days,” said Sherpa. “We see enthusiasm in tourists. It’s a beginning.”
He even sees the chances of people coming to climb Mt Everest in the autumn if things go well.
“Let’s hope the autumn opens the doors for spring 2021,” said Sherpa.