Nepal almost hit the 1 million tourist target in 2017, with a total of 940,218 visitors, nearly 29% above the previous year. This has spread optimism that the tourism industry will finally take off after the triple whammy of the conflict, earthquake
Taking its cue, the government set a target of welcoming 2 million tourists by 2020
. Statistically, by merely maintaining the same rate of growth for the next three years we will be able to see double the arrivals. And that might also be an indication that we are setting the bar too low.
To get an idea of tourism in other Asian nations, Thailand receives close to 34 million tourists in a year, Malaysia got more than 30 million, and even the tiny island of Bali had 5 million visitors. Sri Lanka received more than two million in 2017.
Read also: 2 million by 2020, Shreejana Shrestha Inbound rebound, Editorial A solid tourism brand, Jiwan Bahadur Shahi
So what has stopped us from getting more tourists into Nepal
besides recent crises? A lot of well intentioned but bad press was generated by recent natural and political disasters. Tourist arrivals plummeted drastically at a time when we needed them the most. Undoing that will take some time and some effort.
A European friend of mine who works in Kathmandu is having a hard time convincing her family to move here. She flies back every weekend to Bangkok where her son and husband stay, and gets back the next week to work in Kathmandu.
Why? She is not able to convince her husband that Kathmandu is a liveable, safe and cosmopolitan city. This is surprising because Kathmandu is safer than Bangkok, crimewise. And people who have lived in both the cities will tell you that Nepalis are in general friendlier.
Nepal has traditionally been known to foreigners mainly through its mountaineering community. And even those who know us a little better lump Nepal with neighbouring Bangladesh or India, in terms of the liveability.
Keeping political correctness aside, and having lived for extended periods in India, I can safely say that Nepal is far safer and relaxed than India as a society and that difference needs to be highlighted to international audiences through our branding strategy.
But apart from an aggressive and well-directed promotion, we need to also take a deeper look within Nepal itself. Nepal does not have the sea and beaches which attracts mass tourism. Despite this geographic limitation, a culture of innovation in the tourism industry can open up new possibilities and create unique adventure attractions.
Like everything else in Nepal, the tourism industry is in the hands of a few family-owned companies which have traditionally enjoyed advantages and protection because of their proximity to the rulers. This has bred a restrictive and exclusive culture at the expense of healthy competition.
Earlier, people who could speak English or other foreign languages had an advantage, and this became the base for their involvement in tourism. But benefits were not shared proportionately with the local communities on which the industry depends so much.
Local people did all the hard work as porters, cooks or guides and the middlemen took away most of the benefits. An extractive government machinery did not make any effort to change this, making it difficult for new entrants. Local communities also developed an adverse perception of the industry.
The government’s job seems to be to only set targets based on statistical trends. There is precious little being done to exploit Nepal’s unique selling points, promoting new ventures, innovate and spread the benefits. We now need entrepreneurs who can disrupt this.
Newly-elected local governments could take the lead and become the agents for change, approaching tour groups and FITs directly through Internet marketing. Municipalities and villages are best placed to take up the responsibility to revolutionise the tourism industry from within.
Unless a leveled platform is created for new players, and until the local communities own the industry, innovative tourism culture will be hard to come by.