Nepal fears for tourism after EU airline ban

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Nepal expressed fears Friday for its tourism industry after the European Union blacklisted its airlines due to safety concerns.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas announced on Thursday that the bloc had placed all of Nepal's airlines on its safety blacklist, banning them from flying to the EU, saying their safety record "does not leave us any other choice".

"This is very unfortunate. This will damage our tourism industry," said Mr Mohan Krishna Sapkota, spokesman for the tourism and civil aviation ministry.

"In our meetings with the European Union officials, we had assured that we were working on maintaining safety standards. In the past several months, we have prepared safety manuals and monitored our airlines regularly," he said.

Mr Sapkota said the government was yet to receive official notification from the EU and would comment further after a meeting of officials later in the day.

No airlines from Nepal fly to the EU but tourists, pilgrims and professional climbers - most of them Europeans and Americans - rely on the country's 16 accident-prone domestic airlines to reach remote areas.

The state-run Nepal Airlines, which flies to half a dozen foreign destinations including Hong Kong and Dubai, is the only local carrier operating international flights.

The Himalayan nation has suffered a number of air crashes in recent years, usually attributed to inexperienced pilots, poor management and maintenance.

A Chinese tourist and a local pilot were killed when an ultra-light aircraft crashed into a hill in the tourist town of Pokhara in early October.

In May, 21 people, including eight Japanese tourists, were hurt when a small plane skidded off an airport runway in northern Nepal.

In May last year 15 people were killed at the same airport, while in September last year, 19 people, including seven Britons and four Chinese, were killed after a plane crashed minutes after taking off from Kathmandu.

The Kathmandu Post newspaper on Friday reported that Nepalese aviation officials had met the EU representatives in Brussels last month in which they had asked for a six-month period to improve safety standards.

More than 800,000 foreign tourists visited the Himalayan nation last year.