Nepal still tepid about reopening for foreign tourists as virus cases continue to riseScenario does not look good for the tourism sector as the government once again pushes back the date for welcoming foreign tourists, industry insiders say.
Confusion continues to reign over the reopening of the country for tourists.
The latest decision is to allow foreign tourists only from mid-November, which supersedes the government’s earlier decision to allow tourists in mid-October.
With an uncontrollable rise in the number of Covid-19 cases in the last few weeks, the sector is doubtful if mid-November is a realistic target.
“It is not looking good,” said tourism entrepreneur Yogendra Sakya.
The government’s ad hoc decisions on opening the country to tourists give an impression that it has lost control of the situation.
When the lockdown was lifted in July, the government had said the tourism sector could plan for the autumn season.
It also opened international passenger flights from September 1 but has not allowed tourists in.
Prior to Monday’s Cabinet decision, the government on September 14, had, bowing to pressure, announced foreign tourists would be allowed for mountaineering and trekking only from October 17 to revive the country’s tourism industry hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But that had come with a caveat.
Tourists would have had to stay in mandatory quarantine for seven days before being allowed to hit the trail. They would also have been required to get tested for Covid-19 at the beginning and end of the isolation period.
In view of the growing caseload, the Cabinet on Monday decided not to open Nepal to foreign tourists until at least mid-November, Parbat Gurung, minister for Women, Children and Senior Citizens, told the Post on Tuesday.
“The situation has become different now,” said Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane, joint-secretary at the Tourism Ministry. “Various authorities have suggested imposing lockdown again and in this situation, it is not wise to welcome foreign tourists.”
Nepal’s national Covid-19 tally climbed to 115,358 with 3,556 new infections reported on Tuesday. The number of active cases stands at 35,915, with 78,780 people making successful recoveries—1,503 of them in the past 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry. The country also recorded 18 more fatalities on Tuesday, taking the death toll to 663.
Given the exponential growth of late, with Nepal’s biggest festival, Dashain, next week, the government has even urged the public to celebrate at home.
“Despite assurances to reopen the tourism sector, it’s unfortunate for us to tell the private sector to prepare for the next season in spring 2021,” said Lamichhane. “After mid-November winter begins, which normally sees fewer arrivals even during normal times.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the country’s tourism promotional body—Nepal Tourism Board—announced a temporary closure of its office for four days as a number of staffers have been infected with the virus.
Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai, who once said Nepal is free from the coronavirus and called on related government agencies to accelerate efforts to promote Nepal as a safe tourist destination, became the first minister to contract Covid-19 in the KP Sharma Oli Cabinet.
Bhattarai, who was appointed the tourism minister in July last year, announced on Facebook that he tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.
Hoping that tourists would be allowed to enter the country, tourism entrepreneurs had already made plans.
“We had decided to operate some hotels as isolation centres for infected tourists,” said Sakya. “We had planned the same facilities in Pokhara and Chitwan as well.”
But now they want a more realistic plan on the reopening like other tourism hubs.
“Instead of repeatedly saying we will open, and subsequently postponing the date, the government should come up with a firm decision like Malaysia and other countries did,” said entrepreneur Shakya.
Major tourism destination Malaysia plans to open by the first quarter of 2021.
In Nepal, the restrictions on tourists may impact the country’s economy severely, according to the World Bank.
The economy is projected to grow by just 0.6 percent in 2020-21, as Covid-19 periodic and localised lockdowns continue and disruptions to tourism are expected to persist, according to the World Bank’s latest South Asia Economic Focus released last Thursday.
When the country went into lockdown on March 24, there were just two reported cases. But by the time the government lifted the lockdown on July 21, without utilising the period to improve health care facilities and increasing the number of hospital beds and ventilators, the number of cases had crossed the 17,000 mark.
Since then there has been no let-up and the cases have been increasing at an alarming rate. “Nepal has entered a second wave that is much more severe than the first,” according to the World Bank report.
The tourism industry is hoping to make up for some of the lost business by trying to stimulate more domestic tourism with a number of incentives, from discounts on travel and accommodation. Airlines are coming up with deals of their own.
“There may be some optimism in the domestic tourist movement but it’s too difficult as increased virus cases have worried many,” said Lamichhane. “There have been recommendations from multiple authorities to enforce another lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.”