Mixed tourism strategy is good for Nepal: Joshi
Nepal’s tourism sector is severely marred by lack of infrastructure and proper promotion of tourism products. Despite having world class tourist attractions like Lumbini, Mt. Everest, eight peaks measuring above 8,000 metres, rich flora and fauna, and natural as well as cultural attractions, Nepal’s efforts at welcoming a million tourists has not materialised for the last two decades since it celebrated ‘Visit Nepal Year 1998’.
The country witnessed record tourist arrivals last year after 2012, and hopes are high that the number will reach a million this year. Modnath Dhakal of The Rising Nepal talked to Deepak Raj Joshi, Chief Executive Officer of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), responsible for promoting Nepal’s tourism destinations both in the domestic and international markets, about the prospects of tourism, challenges, revival of the tourism sector after the earthquake and promoting new destinations. Excerpts:
Nepal Tourism Board recently finalised its budget for the current fiscal year. For the past many years, the budget has included traditional programmes and projects. Have you made it different this year?
I agree that in the past we used to implement traditional programmes, such as participating in travel and trade fairs, organising sales missions and fam-trips. But we’ve changed the direction since last year. The board organised the largest ever mass media campaign, allocated separate budget for a social media campaign that included Facebook ad to reach the Nepali diaspora. We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), and with the support of the NRA, public relations representatives and Nepali missions abroad, Visit Nepal Europe Year 2017 was promoted. Although it was a general promotion strategy, it has been very effective. Most of the Nepalis in Europe supported the campaign. In addition to it, we educated the tour operators on how to sell Nepal, organised Webinar and many orientation programmes.
After the record tourist arrival in 2012, Nepal is hoping to bring in about a million tourists this year. What is contributing to this soaring number of tourists?
We are confident that the target of a million tourists will be met this year. There have been rigorous efforts on the part of the NTB, government and private sector. We launched a media campaign through BBC, Trip Advisor and other international media outlets. Rs. 60 million and Rs. 25 million were spent on the BBC and TripAdvisor. We are working in close collaboration with the private sector business associations, such as Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), National Association of Travel and Tour Agents (NATTA) and (Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN). Capacity building programmes for the private sector entrepreneurs were organised in Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan.
Another major contribution to the growing number of tourists was made by the Gorkha Earthquake 2015 because it brought Nepal at the forefront of the international community. Nepal was portrayed by the international media as a beautiful country devastated by the quake. At the same time, we were successful in informing the world that the quake had affected only a small part of the country and the rest of the country was fine to visit and also observe the reconstruction of the world-famous monuments, many of which are listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
There have been changes in the promotional strategies, too. For long, Nepal’s main focus was India and China, but now we have reached out to Europe, especially Eastern Europe and Russia, the United States, Indonesia and Vietnam. As a result, the US is becoming the third largest market for us while Nepal has become the choice for the youths in Malaysia, Indonesia and other East Asian countries that seek soft adventure.
The government and the private sector consider tourism as the major vehicle for economic growth. But this sector is marred by lack of proper infrastructure and other facilities. What should Nepal do in this regard?
The major bottleneck in Nepali tourism is the lack of basic infrastructure. I think we need to attract more Foreign Direct Investment in this sector. We are not poor in the service sector, we have strength in terms of products, too. Therefore, we need to develop basic infrastructure and communicate differently. Tourists always seek new tastes and benefits during their visit. It is a very positive sign that despite stagnant growth in infrastructure, the number of tourists visiting Nepal is very encouraging. I am hopeful that political stability will address such challenges.
Nepali tourism is primarily limited to the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Chitwan triangle. What has the Nepal Tourism Board done to promote other attractive destinations, especially in the east and west?
Tourism is a sector which should be led by the private sector not by the government. Similarly, you can’t force a tourist to visit certain places in the country. Many beautiful locations in the east and west lack accessibility, basic amenities and infrastructure. We are trying to convince the tourism entrepreneurs in the west that their market lies in the nearby Indian cities and the Indian capital, New Delhi, so they should be marketing there. We tried to organise a meeting of Nepali and Indian businesses, highlight Nepal’s products in India and train Nepali entrepreneurs. Similarly, we are creating a link with Bihar’s market. The most important fact is that domestic tourism has high potential. Ghumfir Year 2073 was a success. Many Nepalis reached new destinations across the country. Businessmen are investing Rs. 100 to 200 million in hotels and resorts from Surkhet to Jumla.
How has the tourism sector revived after the devastating Gorkha Earthquake 2015?
A committee was formed that included representatives from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Tourism Department, NTB and the private sector. The private sector had lost its confidence and was afraid that the sector would not revive for the next five years. We sought technical support from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), and it developed a manual with the slogan ‘Nepal back on top of the world’. We launched a new campaign ‘Nepal Now’. We were successful in conveying the message that only 10-12 districts around the Kathmandu Valley were affected by the quake. We highlighted user generated content of the tourists, collaborated with the NRA, didn’t lower the charges for the tourists and launched a mass media campaign. Nepal is a success story that achieved one of the quickest recoveries in the tourism sector.
China is becoming a major tourist source country globally. What should Nepal do to attract more Chinese tourists?
Our highest growing market is China. A new strategy has been developed to attract more Chinese tourists. As per the strategy, Nepal waived off the visa fee and provided visa on arrival, and opened new visa offices in major Chinese cities. But aviation is a challenge with the high fares. Many tourists come to Nepal via the land route. The Himalayan highway itself is a tourism product. Cooperation with the Chinese tour operators, mass media promotions and outdoor promotions in Chinese cities are going on. About 70 journalists from the Chinese media had visited Nepal and generated positive media contents on Nepal’s tourism industry.
Nepal’s efforts to promote MICE tourism miserably failed. Whom should we blame?
Lack of infrastructure is the main cause. We don’t have an international standard convention centre. However, we are trying to promote incentive and meeting tourism. If a group of 1,000 people comes to Kathmandu for a convention, there is neither a venue nor hotel rooms.
Though Nepal has world-class tourism products, it couldn’t promote them in the global market. You said that the NTB is adopting new approaches to promote Nepal’s tourism. But what is the NTB doing to attract high-end tourists?
Kathmandu, Pokhara and the Everest Region have facilities and amenities for high-end tourists. But we shouldn’t forget that Nepal is the choice of backpackers who come here to have lifelong experiences. Yes, it is the area that we should be focusing on as it contributes to higher revenue.
Have there been any efforts at training and providing orientation to the tourism entrepreneurs, hoteliers and other stakeholders along the trekking routes, such as the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp trekking route?
Service quality in the tourism sector should be enhanced. The NTB recently realised the fact that tourism entrepreneurs needed to be trained on delivering quality tourism and hospitality services, such as hygiene. Similarly, businesses must increase their digital presence because most of the tourists go online to search for services and facilities. The board will soon organise a training for entrepreneurs in the new tourist destinations on increasing their digital presence. They should be found while searching online.
Shouldn’t Nepal also implement the per day expenditure ceiling for tourists as in Bhutan?
Nepal is a different market. I think it is not possible to implement such a measure here. We have adopted a liberal economic policy unlike Bhutan’s controlled governance. We also have products like Lomanthang and Upper Dolpa, where tourists have to pay US$ 500 to visit and follow a certain code of conduct. You can even visit a European country for about $1500. Therefore, a mixed tourism strategy is fine with Nepal.
The government was preparing to celebrate 2018 as Visit Nepal Year but has been postponed till 2020, why?
It was because of political reasons. We are just having the elections for the federal and provincial parliament. It may take about a year for the new federal set-up to come into effect. Similarly, we can’t develop infrastructure in a couple of months. Expansion of the Tribhuvan International Airport and Bhairahawa Airport and upgrading the major highways will be completed by 2020.