Year 2011 was special for Nepal in many aspects. The country’s political, economic and social agendas appeared to be on the fast-track to completion. Settling the thorny political and constitutional issues seemed to be every government’s priority. Before the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the entire gamut of issues pertaining to the peace process was headed towards safe landing. Yes, there were ups and downs in the national political milieu, but even so, the country’s tourism industry was on the right course throughout 2011.
Despite the myriad unresolved issues both on domestic and international fronts, the tourism industry on the whole presented a rosy picture at this time. Although the target of a million tourists could not be met, the country achieved a 75 percent success rate. The nation seemed to be united in leading the campaign of Nepal Tourism Year to success. The involvement of every section of society, from children in primary school to the President of the country, made the campaign a truly collaborative venture. There was a competition of sorts among tourism program organizers to claim their hand in the success of NTY. A whole range of events and programs were rebranded to align with NTY programs. Packaging programs with tourism at its heart became the thrust of businesses. Gradually, as tourism activities started gaining momentum, stakeholders seemed ready to name tourism our “national trade”. It can be said that collective ownership of the NTY project made tourism an industry of national pride. Eventually, tourism became the common chorus of all.
Some results of the hard work of relevant stakeholders in 2011 are still visible in 2012. The annual average growth of tourism has been satisfactory in terms of value generated. But it is now clear that sporadic promotions or one-off campaigns will not produce the desired results. The time has come to fine-tune our strategy with bold policy reforms. The government’s priorities should be concentrated on the actual means of bringing more tourists in, than on different modes of tourism promotion. For instance, the passenger seat capacity of planes has proven insufficient to meet the needs of the growing number of tourists flocking to the country. This calls for immediate attention.
Constrained by our topography and economy of scale (in addition to a poor business climate), the country can hardly embark on the road to a vibrant tourism industry as long as our politics does not stabilize. Thus, concentrating on building our infrastructure, especially in road and energy sectors, will be the key to tourism growth in the days ahead—otherwise we risk being forced to limit ourselves to the numbers we set for 2011. We need to adopt an open sky policy and improve the conditions of our roads. The growing mass of globe-trotting Indian and Chinese tourists would be happy to come to Nepal if travel costs were lower. The current fares are too high for the bulk of budget travelers who are looking for a bang for every buck they spend.
If policy bottlenecks in transportation can be removed, our legacy of warm hospitality and friendliness will be enough to entice tourists. Nepal cannot change its landscape overnight to fit the needs of the emerging tourist markets, nor is there any need to do that. Most tourists come to Nepal to experience its natural beauty and cultural diversity, which are permanent. As long as the people of Nepal continue to receive guests with open arms and friendly smiles, Nepal will not be deprived of the constant inflow of tourists even after the country’s transformation into a federal state, despite the likely turbulence on the political front at the time. For instance, tourists did not shy away from Nepal even during the heights of insurgency, though the overall numbers may not have been very encouraging back then. Our openness and friendliness should always be our unique selling points.
Merely enticing tourists to Nepal may not be enough to ensure growth in tourism; care must also be taken to ensure their happy stay. In the future, handling emergency situations involving tourists could end up being a problem area. With more and more tourists coming to Nepal, the likelihood of at least some of them being involved in various trouble spots, climate catastrophes or other adverse situation increases dramatically. Rescuing tourists from these emergency situations calls for sophisticated mechanisms, which we should work to put in place right away. Again, our strongest selling point should be our gracious hospitality, which will make the tourists spread good words about Nepal through word of mouth—an incomparable promotional means.
The author is Director, PR and Publicity Department, Nepal Tourism Board