Quake-hit Nepal now needs tourists more than donations

When earthquakes hit Nepal in April and May, photos of death and devastation shared widely on social media led to a global outpouring of aid and support.

At the end of last month, at a donors' meeting in Kathmandu, US$4.4 billion (S$6 billion) was pledged from nations for recovery and reconstruction, half from grants and the other half in the form of a loan.

I run a relief organisation, and spent a month in Nepal last month. At the Kathmandu airport, I was greeted by pallets of aid lying around, reminding me of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

I braced myself for scenes of devastation. But I was shocked at what I saw once I left the airport. Buses were running, and restaurants and hotels open.

"It's slightly over a month since the first earthquake and has everything returned to normal?" I asked and received a few nods.

At Durbar Square (above) in Patan, life looks like it is back to normal. Shops are open for business and visitors can have tea in a nice cafe overlooking the square. Many hotel and restaurant owners say the lack of tourists since the earthquakes struck earlier this year is now causing economic disaster. PHOTO: ROBIN LOW

My first destination was Durbar Square in Patan, a Unesco World Heritage Site. From the videos seen online, I feared the worst. Buildings were damaged and at least 12 people had died.

But the site has been cleaned up . Many structures are still standing . Where a structure was damaged, it was hard to tell if it was caused by the quake or just weathered by age.

Shops around Durbar Square are open for business. Visitors can have tea in a nice cafe overlooking the square. Life looks like it has returned to normal.

In Kathmandu, there is much progress in the certifying of safe hospitable buildings. Unsafe buildings are sealed and many are getting torn down. Almost 95 per cent of the businesses in Kathmandu are back to normal. Many of the owners of businesses with destroyed buildings are also selling in the streets.

Businesses catering to locals say things are back to normal.

Not so for those catering to tourists, such as taxi drivers, restaurant and hotel owners, as well as business owners in Thamel, a popular tourist district. For them, business is abysmal.

An official, Mr Shambhu Pathak, from the Tourist Association in Kathmandu said: "Nearly all the businesses that cater to tourists have restarted in the hope of earning money to rebuild. However, the negative news coverage that has been repeated since the earthquake is keeping tourists away.

"Now, most of the tourist businesses are losing money and they have already reduced the number of staff they hire. Tourist traffic is less than 15 per cent of normal, and even when hotels reduced their prices to attract visitors, the tourists are still not coming back."

In fact, the safari and state parks are not affected by the earthquake. Out of hundreds of trekking trails, only one near the Everest base camp is closed due to the avalanche.

Among the Unesco world heritage sites, Patan Durbar Square was slightly damaged but still open. The Bhumsen Tower in Dharahara was the only one that was destroyed.

The wildlife reserve, mountain ranges and other popular tourist destinations like Pokhara were unaffected by the twin quakes.

One business owner in Kathmandu commented: "The earthquake did some damage to my store which I promptly fixed to restart my business so I could earn an income for me to fix my home and my village. However, the lack of tourists is making business hard."

Information from a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office revealed that 14 districts were badly affected by the earthquake. But none of them were tourist destinations.

In Pokhara, there was no damage to the caves, hotels, lakes and temples. The view of Annapurna was spectacular. When I spoke to hotel and restaurant owners, many said the disaster did not cause any physical damage, but the lack of tourists in the region is now causing economic disaster.

The owner of Hotel Dharma Inn in Pokhara said: "We usually have 50 per cent occupancy during off-peak season, but after the earthquake, we will be lucky to have more than one guest at any time in our 50-room establishment. The tourists have vanished and even at crowded areas in popular tourist spots to view Annapurna, you can hardly find anyone."

There is a great disconnect in the way information travels. Death and devastation are newsworthy and bad news travels fast. International donors generously responded with a lot of money for reconstruction, and rebuilding is on the way.

But slow, steady recovery does not make for attention-grabbing headlines, and so we do not read about it. But it is on the steady road to recovery that Nepal most needs us now, to be its visitors, its supporters, its tourists.

Showing solidarity by visiting Nepal now is a win-win situation as you get a cheap holiday in a beautiful country, giving business owners and employees the much needed money to rebuild.

My flight to Nepal cost less than $500 and guesthouse rooms with twin beds are less than $15 a day. Food is extremely affordable. In my three weeks in Nepal I felt only one three-second-long aftershock.

Supporting local businesses in Nepal allows the owners and employees to earn a living to send money back to the communities that were damaged. Instead of donations, consider visiting Nepal to experience its beautiful nature and culture.

  • The writer is co-founder of relief organisations Relief 2.0 and Civil Innovation Lab.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Quake-hit Nepal now needs tourists more than donations'. Subscribe