Come back, touristsNepali authorities and the European media have both aggravated the tourism crisis in Nepal
Do you still have anything to eat?” some of my friends living in Europe recently asked me. “Could you go on a multi-day trip to the Annapurna region as planned?” I answered that the choice in the restaurants has slightly shrunk, and that the transportation costs have gone up since my arrival a month ago. But I am still doing well. I feel safe in Nepal.
Why are my friends back home so concerned about me?
Half the truth
One of the answers to the question can be found in the media. For example, last week the fee-financed public German Television ZDF—which characterises itself as a premium high quality station—broadcasted a short report about the current situation in Nepal. Unfortunately, in this report, a professor from the University of Heidelberg expressed some grave misjudgments about the state of affairs in Nepal. The reporter, who has possibly never been to Nepal himself, praised the professor for having recently visited Nepal, and having a profound knowledge of the country. Although the professor was accurate in describing the dissatisfaction of the Madhesis, and in reporting about their ongoing protests, his statements gave the impression that life in Nepal had come to a complete standstill. That everyone in Nepal would now suffer from hunger, and that locals, expats and tourists would have to cook their daily meals over small wood fires out on the roads. “No petrol, no gas”, the professor stated unopposed suggesting that everyday necessities like medicine and drinking water was no longer ensured in Nepal.
Of course, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. And the ongoing unrest in the Tarai and the unofficial blockade by India exacerbates the situation for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Nepalis. Yet, reports such as the one broadcasted on ZDF—watched by millions of German, Austrian and Swiss viewers—in which a professor reflected his subjective impressions unopposed, can be more harmful than the trade embargo on Nepal itself. I am now currently living in Nepal, and my own experiences are very different to what the professor suggests.
The reporting on Nepal by many European media after the devastating earthquakes on April 25 and May 12 already gave a serious blow to the country’s image. Readers of several newspapers, viewers of many TV stations, and users of thousands of websites were given the impression that Nepal had been entirely destroyed by the quake. The number of dead, injured or homeless people was of course huge, and the damage to infrastructure was disastrous but not to the extent that is being depicted in the international media. Unfortunately, it was reported that Kathmandu and many other tourist hotspots such as Pokhara and the Annapurna region have suffered huge damages. Such incomplete and partially erroneous news coverage could prove to be abysmal for tourism in Nepal.
“Compared to last year, this fall the number of guests decreased by around 70 percent” complains Sabine Pretsch. The German and her Nepali husband run a small travel agency ‘Temba’s Nepal Trek & Expedition’ in Lazimpat. It is understandable that some people are more anxious than others, and after disasters such as the earthquake, travelers are more fearful. “But the media, for example in my homeland Germany, put the tourism industry in an awkward position because of their exaggerated reports of the earthquake and its consequences.”
Pretsch also says that despite the fuel shortage it is still possible to operate the booked tours without any major problems. “Minor restrictions and changes had to be made and are accepted by our customers.”This is because they also know that tourism is indispensable for a poor country like Nepal.” In fact, tourism has become a major industry in the last two decades, growing substantially in the recent years. Now this growth has not only decelerated, but abruptly come to a halt. This is mainly because of the deceptive reporting from various media, which are driven by the hunt for better viewing rates, more audience and a higher readership. Unfortunately, a crisper headline, a palatable story is worth more than accuracy.
Poor but rich
Even though Nepal might be a deprived country, it is extremely rich in cultural and religious diversity. And the many natural attractions are incomparable. As a Swiss, I have seen many beautiful places, gorgeous lakes and high mountains in my country. But the dimension and the effects of nature here are much higher and more impressive. Anyone who has felt the inspiring magic of the Himalayas knows exactly what I mean. All the more, it is distressing when numerous shops in Thamel complain about the lack of customers. It was similar when I visited Pokhara recently, the starting point for many trekkers in the Annapurna region: half-empty restaurants, hardly any traffic and abandoned streets.
“This quietness can also be very enjoyable,” an owner of a grocery store in Pokhara told me. But it is very bad for the business: “We have stopped many of our deliveries because the demand has almost collapsed.” To make matters worse, Nepali authorities repeatedly change some rules for the tourism industry. Sabine Pretsch laments, “Recently, the demands for mountain climbing permits were changed overnight. This also makes our business difficult.”After all these years in Nepal, Sabine knows how to deal with it, and tourists often do not notice these difficulties.
But it shows that the local authorities should handle the tourism industry more seriously than they currently do. Nepal should now make every effort to begin reconstruction work, and end the unofficial blockade by India so that affluent tourists come back. It will probably take some time to complete the first two tasks. Also, it would be naive to think that Nepal can influence the mass media in Europe and elsewhere. Yet, a massive advertising campaign on various channels to lure tourists is doable in the immediate. It would be a short-term investment that pay offs quickly, could also benefit the country in the medium-term.
Dischoe is a Swiss journalist. He is currently interning at the Post