When Visit Nepal year began in early January 2020, travel agents, guides, porters were all upbeat in the expectation of more business. But just as trekkers and tourists started arriving for the spring season, flights to and from Kathmandu were stopped in March.
“Tourism is largely run by the private sector in Nepal with very little help from the government. This unforeseen crisis has made us think about how we conduct tourism in this country,” says Sarita Lama of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal. “This year our revenue is zero. Many trekking and travel agencies have closed indefinitely, as they were unable to pay rents and their employees.”
Nepal’s tourism sector brought in over $700 million in 2019, and contributed 8% equivalent to the country’s GDP. Indeed, tourism experts say pandemic has given the industry time to rethink the whole business model.
The former CEO of Nepal Tourism Board Deepak Raj Joshi agrees that the Covid-19 crisis has given Nepal some breathing space and to look for ways to make tourism more sustainable and for its benefits to be more equitably distributed within the country.
“We should use this pandemic as an opportunity to work towards improvement of facilities along trekking trails and upgrading skills of porters and guides so they can earn more when trekking resumes,” Joshi says.
There are also sightseeing tour guides who has lost their jobs in the past year. Kedar Tamang has been a guide taking visitors to tourist attractions around Nepal for the past 25 years. He says he hasn’t seen any crisis as dismal as the past year.
“As a tour guide, our responsibility has been to portray a good image of Nepal to the outside world by sharing our culture, history and heritage,” says Tamang. “Out of 4,500 registered tour guides, not even one person has found another job for a year now.”
The dire emergency has forced some in the business to adapt to the new environment and create new opportunities in domestic tourism, and to do advance online promotion for a time when visitors can return to Nepal.
Manish Shrestha of Enroute Nepal says, “Most of the travel agents have shifted online and have made us rethink our business model. That’s how we are now adapting and adjusting to the new normal.”
But for most porters and trekking guides, this is not an option. There is also a lot of competition to guide the few Nepali trekking goops that are venturing out along the trails.
Ang Kingka Sherpa, a certified trekking guide has been out of a job since the beginning of the lockdown. The 31-year-old has worked his way up the career ladder from being a porter.
“Being a guide or a porter is not just my job, it is also my passion. I do not think I can do anything else for a living,” says Sherpa, who has difficulty providing for his family after losing his income, and exhausting his savings.
But he has not lost all hope. He is confident tourists will come back to Nepal: “April-May still might hold promise. Let’s see how things go.”
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