Thursday, 6 October 2016

NEPAL: Pokhara Is A Wonderful Place, But Empty Rooms

Pokhara is a wonderful place to be this time of the year. With the mercury dipping a notch around Dashain, those who visit the scenic city in Western Nepal can expect a comfortable temperature, even as Kathmandu is starting to get a little too chilly. This is why domestic and foreign tourists alike flock, in their hundreds of thousands, to Pokhara this time every year.

The picture-perfect Lakeside is their main draw. On a clear morning, the image of the snow-clad Macchapucchre mountain towering above the Phewa lake can take your breath away, no matter how many times you have seen it before. If so, why is the Lakeside unusually quiet this year? Hotel occupancy in the area is around 30 percent, which is around the same rate as was witnessed during the peak season last year. The absence of tourists last year was understandable.

The earthquakes and the five months of the border blockade had together scared off most would-be travelers. Many countries asked their citizens to avoid Nepal altogether. So after somehow weathering the storm last year hotel and tourism entrepreneurs in Pokhara were expecting tourist footfalls to bounce back to pre-crisis levels. But that is clearly not the case.

Pokhara escaped largely unscathed from the earthquakes and the blockade is now long since gone. But the tourists are still not coming. While local hoteliers were expecting occupancy of 60 percent this peak season, actual occupancy is around half that level. One reason many tourists have stayed away is that last year’s earthquakes and blockade are still fresh in their minds, and for many the risk was just not worth it. But the host country itself does not seem to want foreign visitors. Long sections of the 200-km Kathmandu-Pokhara road appear more like obstacle courses than a proper highway.

Flights between the two destinations are often delayed, making it difficult for tourists to plan their itinerary. Nor has enough been done to promote Nepal abroad. In 2015 alone 120 million Chinese travelled abroad, spending US $105 billion in the process. If even one percent of these outbound Chinese tourists could be persuaded to come here, the tourism sector in Nepal would get a big boost.

Once a country’s international image gets a knock—as Nepal’s undoubtedly did after the earthquakes and the blockade—it takes some time for it to recover its old image. So we can expect a natural bump in tourist arrivals with the passage of time. But relying on such natural recovery is a risky strategy. Who is to say there won’t be another political upheaval in Nepal in the near future? Moreover, Nepal has to compete against other attractive tourist destinations around the world, which are doing everything they can to lure more tourists.

And here we are who, with our patchy roads and unreliable air transport, can’t even get our basics right. Besides these hindrances there aren’t enough things for tourists to do in Pokhara. Again, if the Chinese tourists are the targets, what specifically can Pokhara do to appeal to them? More generally, why are there only hotels and restaurants but not water parks and cinema halls on the Lakeside?

Why aren’t other areas besides the Lakeside being developed for tourists? If Pokhara with its unmatched beauty is to regain its status as the prime tourist destination of Nepal, time has come to ask these hard questions and reevaluate our old approach.