Getting tourist treks back on track

KATHMANDU • Perhaps the greatest indication of the April 25 earthquake is the lack of foreigners at the tourist hotspots - not the fallen buildings.

Shops in Thamel, a commercial neighbourhood in Nepal's capital Kathmandu, popular with tourists, are closing two hours earlier instead of at the usual low-season shutter time of 9pm.

Ms Bhabani Pandey, 40, who co-owns a shop selling pashmina scarves said she used to have 10 to 12 customers a day. Now, two customers would make a good day.

An hour at Durbar Square in Patan saw no tourists.

"Before the earthquake, there were tourists here throughout the day," said Madam Durga Rana, 70, who for 35 years has been selling pigeon feed to temple devotees at the square every day.

It is crucial that tourism bounces back as it accounts for 4 per cent of the GDP, said Nepal Tourism Board administrative chief Ramesh Kumar Adhikari. Tourism is second behind remittance from the millions of Nepalese who work overseas.

"We have to save the tourism image of Nepal," he said.

The number of tourists who visited Nepal after the quake in May this year has plummeted by 40 per cent compared to the same month last year, he said.

But he thought the drop was still "very hopeful", even though those who visited in May were not tourists, but scientists, relief workers and journalists.

The reopening of Kathmandu's world heritage monuments - including Patan Durbar Square - on June 15 was meant to let the world's media carry that message to their citizens, said Mr Adhikari.

He spent an hour with The Straits Times in his office, outlining the government's plan to draw tourists back to the country in time for autumn. Anxious to boost tourism, the government held a meeting last month with industry stakeholders to come up with a 51-point declaration, which Mr Adhikari told this newspaper.

Apart from disseminating positive messages in the media about how Nepal is safe, the declaration ambitiously wants to overhaul the international airport, give three months' salary to tourism workers, and see if tourist hotspots can operate 24 hours.

The government was also hoping that last month's donor meeting, attended by foreign politicians, could lead to countries taking "avoid non-essential travel" off their Nepal travel advisories.

And while Britain has done that for parts of Nepal, Singapore is still advising citizens to postpone non-essential travels.

Fixing the 743 damaged monuments will take five to seven years, estimated Mr Adhikari. Still, the tourism board and trekking companies remain hopeful that tourism will pick up come Autumn.

Nepal and its many trekking routes rely on adventure tourism anyway, said souvenir shop owner Mr Thapa.

And Nepal possesses eight out of the world's 10 tallest mountains, with only two trekking routes damaged by the quake.

Mr Ram Krishna Shrestha, who owns a trekking company Adventure Challenge Centre, that had seven trekking trips cancelled since the quake, said: "Earthquakes are natural disasters; happen in every country. If you want to help Nepal, you don't need to donate.

"You have to come and see it. Come and see for yourself that Nepal is fine."

Kok Xing Hui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'Getting tourist treks back on track'. Print Edition | Subscribe