Quantity vs Quality: Nepal’s unhealthy fixation with tourist numbers

Euro Asia Treks

June 12, 2024

Quantity vs Quality: Nepal’s unhealthy fixation with tourist numbers

Article by: Mr. Rakshit Khadka – Béyul

The 2023 data is out and there’s a wave of celebration within the Nepali tourism sphere for reaching the one million visitor number mark once again. Nepal Tourism Board, the country’s tourism promotional body has reported that 1,008,614 tourists came to Nepal via air as of 5 am on December 30. This upturn in tourism, marks a significant recovery from the downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic reflecting an 85% recovery. The confidence is running high with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, reportedly jubilant from the news, and a director of Nepal Tourism Board remarking, “it’s a moment to cheer”. The government is geared up now to declare another Visit Nepal Year for 2025 without assessing the failures of 2020’s and 2023-2032 is to be dubbed as the “tourism decade” with express mission to bring in 3.5 million tourists even though nobody can answer what these numbers mean for grassroot development of Nepal.

On the other side of the globe, in the UK end a new travel trend has emerged. After prolonged lockdowns and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a noticeable rebound in travel demand. Case in point, the UK’s “Sunshine Saturday”- the first day off after the new year return to work – is being reported as the “highest-ever day of sales” by many travel agencies, with the expectation of consecutive record-breaking weeks for January and February. It is believed that because people were confined for months during the pandemic, the masses are now eager to compensate for the lost time by traveling more extensively and adventurously. This pent-up demand is seen as the driving force behind the surge in international travel, and the trend is being popularly termed as “revenge travel”.

However, this raises a pertinent question: Are the trends in these two countries interconnected? And if so, is Nepal’s tourism sector merely benefitting from a temporary surge? If this is the case then, it might provide a short-term economic boost and a small push for recovery post-pandemic in Nepal but have the Nepalese tourism stakeholders considered what will happen when the dust settles?

Throughout various historical phases, the Nepali tourism industry has time and again exhibited an overly optimistic outlook regarding future prospects, during periods of market stability. The popular opinion then quickly reverts feet up and profound existential questioning seeps in following any disturbances, whether minor or major. This cycle of optimism and doubt is a clear indication of a reactive rather than a proactive approach. It is symptomatic of unprepared people lacking long-term vision and an industry lacking fundamental building blocks.

This mechanism was seen at play during the ten-year Maoist insurgency and the ensuing transitional phase, which introduced a period of political instability. The repercussions of these events on the tourism sector were severe, as it halted the entire industry and prompted a questioning of its resilience and adaptability. The impact was also evident in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes, exacerbated by the subsequent economic blockade imposed by India which not only had an immediate disruptive effect on Nepal’s tourism but also exposed the industry’s vulnerability to external shocks and its lack of preparedness for crisis management. And the same mechanisms could be seen recently when the pandemic struck Nepal and the entire tourism industry was left bare at the mercy of the volatilities exposing institutional incapability and lack of problem-solving skillset from lowest to the highest level of the Nepali tourism industry.

Behind the numbers and statistics, and the ongoing cycle of boom and bust however, Nepal’s authentic essence and its resultant brand image as a rare and unique destination has slowly been eroding away. The Nepali tourism industry has repeatedly attracted international attention for all the negative reasons that has detracted Nepal away from its idyllic “Shangri-La” image. Notably, Nepali tourism industry frequently finds itself in international limelight for unethical insurance scandals, severe air pollution in Kathmandu, “human traffic jams” on Everest summit and for its deadly skies resulting from the substandard aviation sector.

Recently Nepal once again came into international spotlight for a decision that undermines its own competitive advantages, scarce as they are. The country, renowned for its vast and majestic natural landscapes where trekkers could practically get lost for months on end without encountering elements of modern life, controversially banned solo trekking, and enforced hiring of trekking guides. This move, while said to be intended for “safety” has been poorly received by the trekking community worldwide. The fact remains that Nepal government’s short-sightedness in implementing the policy without any strategy to back it up with guide training or security protocols was at the expense of its brand identity which took decades to naturally develop in the world arena. Separately on the trekking topic, the ongoing wave of rampant road construction in Nepal has resulted in destruction of countless delicate biomes in the Himalayas along with what was once pristine landscapes reached only by trekking. These unconscious developmental activities not only risk permanent damage to the ecological integrity of these regions but also undermines the growth potential of trekking tourism- the one key differentiator which could have been a key driver of Nepal’s success on the international stage.

Amidst this backdrop where then does Nepali tourism want to go next? While many EU nations as well as Nepal’s neighbours in Asia feel the brunt of mass tourism, the calls for 3.5 million visitors in Nepal necessitates some critical assessment. If higher numbers are the success metric that Nepal wants to accept, why not celebrate the human traffic jams in Everest and call it a success. The focus on increasing tourist numbers however, while seemingly beneficial in the short term, overlooks deeper issues at the foundational levels of the industry and neglects the needs of the hour.

Nepal’s tourism industry is crumbling from within. The further pursuit of quantity over quality in this mix risks diluting the authenticity and accelerate the downfall of the brand. Numerous areas within the industry requires immediate attention before even thinking of visitor numbers. It would do marvels if Nepal could start with product development and its diversification. There is a conspicuous lack of academic understanding of tourism in Nepal, coupled with a deficit in the technical skillset required to provide high-quality and consistent customer service. Here Nepal needs a long-term investment into human resource development and capacity building. On the other hand, corruption poses a major obstacle to innovation in Nepal’s tourism sector. The country’s tourism bodies, deeply mired in corruption, require substantial repurposing and realignment towards a unified vision which can help too. Or maybe just better management of waste and some attention to air pollution in Kathmandu could start to push things in the right direction. Else, as the Nepali saying goes- ‘a man starts getting mad, when death is at the door’- hopefully this madness for visitor number stops before it brings in the demise of Nepal’s tourism industry or at the very least, irreversible damage to its brand image.

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