With no clear plan from government, Nepal may remain closed for tourists until 2020-endWith the festival season approaching and a large number of Nepalis, including migrant workers expected to return home, government officials said it will be difficult to manage tourists.
With the coronavirus spikes showing no sign of abating anytime soon, Nepal is likely to remain shut for foreign tourists until the end of this year.
But as the country is bracing for a major festival season, there is a high chance of people’s movement, not just within the country but also internationally.
Officials at the Tourism Ministry say given the festive season, which will mean Nepalis in hordes will be arriving, it will be difficult to manage foreign tourists in light of the rising number of Covid-19 cases.
“We expect Nepalis, including migrant workers, to return home soon,” said an official at the ministry, who did not wish to be named. “The situation is that the country is experiencing rapid spread of the virus.”
According to him, sooner or later, an announcement is likely.
After five months, Nepal opened its skies for international flights starting Tuesday, allowing limited regular passenger and chartered flights. Only Nepalis, and diplomats and employees of development partners are allowed to fly into Nepal for now.
The government’s move to continue with restrictions on foreign holidaymakers even after resuming international flights has renewed worries of travel trade entrepreneurs.
In a statement on Sunday, the Nepal Association Tour Operators called on the government to quickly come up with a plan to save the 1.05 million jobs which are in danger of being lost, some permanently, in the tourism industry.
The association said that tourism related businesses have been operating on a negative cash flow since late March and this is not a situation that can be sustained for long.
“Most indicators are that tourism’s road to recovery will be long and drawn out with traveler numbers reaching 2019 levels only in 2024,” said the association. “Travel industry sector companies cannot be expected to sustain themselves for such a long time without active support from the government.”
As of Tuesday, Nepal has reported 40,529 coronavirus cases and 239 deaths. As many as 1,069 new cases were reported across the country on Tuesday, with a record 481 in Kathmandu Valley. Tuesday’s death toll was 11.
Even though the government decided to lift the lockdown on July 21, the health and foreign affairs ministries were not positive about opening the country for foreign tourists, according to Tourism Ministry officials.
“During Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre meetings, the Foreign Affairs Ministry reiterates that it cannot afford to issue on-arrival visas for foreigners at this time of crisis. Health Ministry officials, too, support this view saying that it’s not an appropriate time to host tourists,” a tourism ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.
At a time when the pandemic has upended daily life across the globe, travel and tourism industries worldwide are struggling, and the situation is no different in Nepal, say industry insiders.
However, they have been calling on the government to at least come up with some work plan for the road to recovery.
“Most of the countries are clear regarding the timetable to open up for tourists, and that assures the travel trade industry to be well prepared,” said Ashok Pokhrel, president of Nepal Association Tour Operators, the umbrella organisation representing tour operators. “But in our case, decisions have been made without enough thought.”
The Indonesian island of Bali recently announced that it will not open to foreign tourists this year due to coronavirus concerns.
Similarly, Thailand has announced restricting tourists to many major sights in the country until 2021. However, last week, Thailand announced it hopes to allow limited numbers of international travellers to visit certain parts of the country from October through a programme called ‘Safe and Sealed’.
China had last week announced a temporary ban on all foreign visitors, even if they have visas or residence permits. The northern neighbour is also limiting each Chinese and foreign airline to one flight per week.
“We know how weak our health infrastructure system is. In this scenario, we cannot assure our foreign clients to come but the least the government can do is come up with a precise plan,” said Pokhrel. “And amid this, the government comes up with revised decisions every week, adding to our confusion.”
On July 20, the government said that international and domestic flights will resume from August 17, and asked the travel and tourism industry to take bookings for the autumn tourism season accordingly.
A month later, on August 21, the government decided to resume chartered and regular passenger flights from September 1.
However, only Nepalis and diplomats and employees of development partners would be allowed to fly into Nepal, with restrictions on foreign tourists until further notice, the Cabinet decided.
Then on Sunday, the government decided not to open domestic flights until September 16.
Meanwhile, Tourism Ministry Joint Secretary Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane said they have revised the list of chartered and regular flights scheduled to slightly increase the flight frequencies after criticism from Nepali missions abroad, saying that that would delay the rescue of stranded Nepali workers.
On August 10, the government had capped the daily arrivals at 500 individuals, which prompted airlines to jack up airfares due to limited availability of seats. The Cabinet meeting on Sunday decided to increase this to 800 individuals.
“Flights have been increased keeping in mind particularly foreign companies sending Nepali workers to Nepal at their own expenses,” said Lamichanne. “Such companies have to request Nepal beforehand to operate the flights required to repatriate Nepali migrant workers.”
Travel and tourism operators say they are hoping that the government will come up with something, given how the economy has taken a beating.
The tourism sector contributes around 8 percent to the economy and provides jobs to around a million of people.
A study entitled Rapid Assessment of the Social and Economic Impacts of Covid-19, commissioned by the UN Development Programme in Nepal and conducted by the Institute for Integrated Development Studies, said with international travel restrictions and fall in discretionary disposable incomes worldwide, tourism receipts in Nepal are projected to fall by 60 percent in 2020, resulting in a loss of foreign currency earnings worth $400 million.
Similarly, Nepal’s central bank’s survey shows that the four-month-long lockdown imposed by the government has forced the hotel and restaurant industry, which saw almost zero visitors since the lockdown, to lay off 40 percent of employees. According to the survey, hotels and restaurants cut employees’ salaries by 36.4 percent.
Arrivals during the months of April, May, June and July numbered 13, 30, 100 and 195 individuals respectively, almost all of them diplomatic personnel. Nepal welcomed more than 70,000 visitors during each of these four months last year.
The tourism industry has never seen such a catastrophe since the first foreign sightseers began arriving in the 1950s after Nepal opened its doors to the world establishing direct air links with several Indian cities.
Tourism entrepreneurs say things weren't this bad even during the Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006 and the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes.
The virus has dealt a knockout blow, and the once booming tourism sector is unlikely to get back on its feet any time soon, travel trade entrepreneurs say.
Pokhrel, the tour operator, said that the government should say clearly how long the country would have to restrict the foreign tourists.
“The announcement, at least, will clear doubt that the tourism industry will open or not.”