Nepal's tourism blitz

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

Nepal is pulling all the stops out to diversify and promote its tourism product.

IMAGINE a foreign destination where everything is designed to suit the traveller, the pace, the mood and the purse. Arguably, for an Indian budget tourist, Nepal is the dream destination. It is almost like his or her home (there are hundreds of Maruti cars on the road and the rupee is legal tender), and at the same time provides the thrill of being in a foreign country, sans the visa hassles. The weather in this Himalayan kingdom is pleasant, and its people are amiable.

But Indians, who normally account for a third of all tourists to Nepal, are not coming in by the numbers that this country with a population of 25 million would like. The aftermath of the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft when it was on a flight between Kathmandu and New Delhi and the strong anti-Indian feelings that manifested themselves during the protests against Hindi film actor Hrithik Roshan are primarily responsible for this.

While 143,229 Indian visitors arrived in 1998, the figure dropped to 140,630 in 1999 and to 95,879 in 2000. January 2001 saw an increase of 25.8 per cent over the corresponding month in 2000, but it was still 42.4 per cent below the 1999 figure. (These figures pertain only to Indian tourists coming by air. The large number of tourists who come overland are not counted.)

The Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) would like to dispel the notion that the country is full of pitfalls for Indian or any other foreign tourist. It is quite justified in wanting to do so. Gun-toting terrorists are not running amok on the streets of Kathmandu. There is some political uncertainty, industrial unrest, problems that are associated with any fledgling Third World democracy, and a Maoist insurgency, but life is as easy-paced as it has ever been in the world's only Hindu kingdom. Pradeep Raj Pandey, the NTB's chief executive officer, said: "We are trying to prove an untruth."

Nepalese sources also point out that India-Nepal tourism traffic has been affected by the rule that mandates citizens of either country to possess travel documents when crossing the border. As per the agreement signed between the two countries, visitors coming in by air are now required to carry with them their passport, any document issued by the Central or State government or a document issued by the embassies of the two countries. Said Pandey: "We are only turning away friends with this insistence on the travel document."

According to Varun P. Shrestha: Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Nepalese wish to go to India for pilgrimage, to pursue higher education or to take up jobs. "We hope that Indians will also come here. The people of these two countries are linked closely, both socially and culturally," he said. He also stressed that promotion of tourism could result in advantages for both countries.

In a bid to boost tourism, especially among SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries, Nepal has been suggesting a SAARC Tourism Board and a SAARC visa that would allow movement of nationals of all SAARC countries within the member-countries. Free movement will, according to Nepalese sources, also mean a 50 per cent discount on travel fares for SAARC citizens.

Starting with its ongoing Rs.10-million, three-month-long promotional blitz, 'Nepal Festival of Life', that will end in July, the NTB is pulling out all the stops to welcome the Indian tourist. There are special incentives and privileges, including discounts at leading business establishments, for Indian visitors.

Tourism has been this land-locked country's main industry ever since it opened its doors to the outside world in the early 1950s. Although eight out of 10 Nepalese are engaged in farming (mainly growing rice, maize, wheat, sugarcane, oilseeds and tobacco), agriculture accounts for 40 per cent of Nepal's gross domestic product. Tourism is the money-spinner; it fetches over $150 million every year.

But the growth of tourism has had a negative impact as well. Other industries, especially those in the rural areas save the small-scale carpet and garment industries, have not grown beyond the developmental stage. The tourism industry has also tended to focus on the Kathmandu valley, with people from the countryside migrating to the capital in search of opportunities in the sector. This has meant that Kathmandu (its current population is one million) is not as tranquil as it was even 15 years ago. Studies have shown that the city population is increasing by 7 per cent a year. There have been moves recently to spread tourism across the country and to invest in remote, untapped areas.

Nepal has managed to retain its old-world charm and is even today a world where "the streets have no names". Juxtaposed between the two Asian giants, China to the north and India to the south, Nepal is a land of temples (Pashupatinath and Muktinath being the most famous), stupas and monasteries (Swayambhunath and Bouddhanath or Tengboche), World Heritage Sites (the birthplace of the Buddha at Lumbini or the ancient cities of Patan and Bhaktapur), stunning views, placid lakes (like the Phewa lake at Pokhara), snow-capped mountains (including, the 8,848-metre Everest) and national parks (like Royal Chitwan and Royal Bardia). Four casinos are located in Kathmandu.

Topographically, Nepal is divided into three regions - the Himalayas (which account for 16 per cent of the country's land area) to the north, the Mahabharat range and the Churia hills in the middle and the Terai (which covers 17 per cent of the land area but is home to 48 per cent of the population) in the south. Within a matter of a few miles, the mean sea level could range from 8,000 ft to 20,000 feet. The country has six climatic zones, 319 plant varieties and 848 bird species, and it is a good destination for adventure activities such as mountaineering, rafting and trekking. Adding to the charm is its 30-odd ethnic groups with their own languages and customs.

With indications that tourism will by 2020 become the industry with the largest monetary turnover in the world, Nepal is not staying content with wooing just the Indian tourist. It has not been lost on the Nepalese that China, as its economy grows, will be another potential tourist goldmine. In 1999, 9.23 million Chinese, up from the 4.52 million in 1995, travelled abroad. An official from the NTB said: "All that Nepal tourism needs is a captive market from our two neighbours, India and China."

In April, Shrestha signed a memorandum of understanding in Beijing with the Chinese government on cooperation in the tourism sector. China has listed Nepal as one of its few outbound tourist destinations, the first country in South Asia to win such recognition. China and Nepal are also expected to sign an agreement on opening non-commercial tourism offices in either country.

But much remains to be done if Nepal is keen to woo Chinese and Indian visitors.

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