The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world by requiring social distancing. The basic essence of human interaction has been challenged. Only essential movement, and in restricted form, has been allowed. The pandemic has practically shut down the travel and tourism industry. It was not considered essential. Over the past decade, the tourism sector was the fastest growing industry, with well over a million tourists arriving per year, contributing between six and seven per cent to Nepal’s GDP and provided employment for over a million persons. After being shut down for six months, the impact on the economy and local employment has become apparent.
The tourism industry in Nepal has had a major flaw, the lack of innovation and planning. The Visit Nepal Year 2020 was forced to be postponed, but it was just another repeat from those in 1998 and 2011. There was even news of the possibility of introducing a visit Nepal decade, though it is not clear whether this statement was made in jest, or out of shear desperation. On a more sober note, the government has stated that tourism will resume from October 17th, though with rising numbers of people affected by the COVID-19 virus in the capital city, there are parallel rumours of renewed lockdowns.
The government has focussed on funding tourism infrastructure projects, with varying success. The most recent effort has been to call proposals for tourism infrastructure and product development from provincial and local governments. The media reported that the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation received 713 proposals, amounting to some 33 billion rupees, a bit over 280 million US Dollars. Injecting this money into infrastructure development will surely help the local economy. However, based on what vision for the tourism sector is this being implemented? The main concern here would be the impact of these projects on the cultural and natural heritage of the country.
Closely linked to tourism is another sector, civil aviation, which in Nepal is ideally looked after by the same ministry. While working on making the Tribhuvan International Airport into a “boutique” facility, the construction of regional airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa is progressing, albeit slowly. This is surely an appropriate strategy for the country, considering the need for decentralisation and spreading risk. So why does the discussion on the megaproject of Nijgadh Airport still continue? The country doesn’t need this airport. Should Nepal really target developing a regional hub? It might help if we find out why Airbus has stopped manufacturing the A380, and why the A320 is the most popular airplane in the world. This will also question the fast-track being constructed from Kathmandu to Nijgadh, with the army steamrolling over the cultural landscape of the tentative World Heritage site of Khokana.
The lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed us to experience a Kathmandu without pollution. Can we restart our economic activities and still ensure that pollution is kept under control? Similarly, this is an opportunity to rethink the vision for tourism and work towards sustainability, instead of haphazard growth. The queues on Mount Everest and the ensuing deaths in 2019 were an indicator. The frivolity of the tourism sector has been seen each time there has been a natural calamity or political unrest. Should we expect that this pandemic will be over and things go back to normal? Will a Visit Nepal Year 2021, which intends on attracting masses of tourists back to Nepal, be the appropriate solution?
Nepal has the potential to develop niche tourism that ensures protection of its natural and cultural heritage, while supporting the local economy, in line with the new Constitution. The government must understand that the tourism sector needs innovation and planning more than ever before. Can we develop the vision?