Nepal’s tourism is still reeling from the aftereffects of last year’s twin disasters: first the earthquakes and then the five months of the border blockade. Hotel booking in the paradise city of Pokhara at this peak season has been around 30 percent, the same as last year. Before last year, the normal booking rate in the peak season was around 60 percent. Now Nepali tourism has received yet another blow, this time in the form of the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan following the terror attack on Uri in the Indian-administered Kashmir.
Even the few tourists who were determined to visit Nepal despite last year’s hardships are now cancelling their hotel and travel bookings in Nepal citing ‘security reasons’. This is not surprising because up to 60 percent third-country tourists to Nepal come via India. The collapse in tourist numbers this year is a cruel reminder of Nepal’s vulnerability as an effectively ‘India-locked’ country. Many European and American tourists would still visit Nepal, which, after all, has nothing to do with the simmering Indo-Pak tensions, if Nepal had direct flights to major European, and even American, destinations.
But lack of flights to these destinations is not the only problem. Compared to Nepal, India is a humongous market for foreign tourists. According to the World Bank, while 790,000 foreign tourists spent US $665 million in Nepal in 2014, in India, 7.6 million tourists spent $17, 493 million in the same year. So it is not surprising that many European and American tourists will look to make India, with its incredible wealth of tourist sites, their primary tourist destination in South Asia, from where they then can fan out to other South Asian destinations, including Nepal.
If Indo-Pakistan tensions continue to flare, and there are no indications that they will cool down anytime soon, then Indian tourism will also receive a severe jolt. This is the reason we have been calling on our tourism authorities to also start focusing on non-Western markets, China chiefly. In 2015 alone 120 million Chinese travelled abroad, spending US $105 billion in the process. The way we see it, if even one percent of these outbound Chinese tourists could be persuaded to come here, the tourism sector in Nepal would get a big fillip. That will also ease Nepal’s excessive reliance on Western markets for tourists.
More than that, the regional impact of any Indo-Pak tensions is a reason why this newspaper would like to see a stronger and more active SAARC. As it is there are enough problems that call for a pan-regional outlook and a high level of coordination among the eight SAARC member states: problems like climate change, terrorism, and entrenched pockets of poverty, which is also linked with lack of connectivity.
This is especially true for the seven countries in the Indian subcontinent (bar Afghanistan, which is also a member of SAARC). Due to their close economic and societal links, the problems in one country sooner or later spill over into another. Like it or not, SAARC right now is the only platform which has the potential to transform the region into a vibrant economic hub and establish the whole of South Asia as an attractive tourist destination.
We can either all prosper together or sink in the same doomed ship. So SAARC must be saved at all cost. Meanwhile, we hope that the new Nepali ambassador to China, Leela Mani Paudyal, a competent China hand, can persuade the Chinese government to encourage more of its citizens to visit the beautiful, and very affordable, Nepal.