They say ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. The saying turned out to be true about the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Due to global travel restrictions, not many international visitors came to Nepal in 2021 but the domestic tourists kept the tourism industry alive, showing a new glimmer of hope.
KATHMANDU, Jan 1: As the world continued to battle COVID-19 through the past two years, people spent most of their time adjusting to the new normal. The rapid mutation of the coronavirus ended up with a few dominant variants making it clear that the virus was not going out of the scene any time soon. People went back to work amid the risk. Tourism was an exception as there were no to few clients to serve. Nepal heavily relies on foreigners when it comes to the tourism sector. And the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed the prospects of tourism.
Hotels remained shut, airplanes grounded and travelers were limited with travel restrictions still on as the risk of the COVID-19 infection loomed. The pandemic brought the Nepali tourism industry to its knees, but it didn’t give up and kept trying to rise from the challenges. Although the arrival of international tourists dropped dramatically, domestic tourists flocked to popular destinations. This year, tourism entrepreneurs dealt with more domestic tourists than foreigners. Kesang Tamang, a hotel operator at Kyangjin Gompa, Langtang, shared that most of his clients were Nepalis. “Even though the number of foreigners declined this year, Nepali tourists came to fill in the gap,” he added. “During the tourist season, all the hotels around here were packed with domestic tourists.”
The nation-wide lockdown and travel advisories issued by different countries contributed to the limited arrival of tourists to Nepal. The year 2020, which was meant to celebrate ‘Visit Nepal Year’ was an appalling year for tourism entrepreneurs as only the first three months were open for arrivals. As a result, the Ministry of Culture Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) stated that tourist arrivals were almost 80% less than the previous year. Only 230,085 foreign nationals entered Nepal against the country’s target to welcome two million tourists in 2020.
Since the impact of COVID-19 held its ground the following year, the tourism sector, though hit the hardest, showed resilience. Tourist destinations allowed tourists to enter the premises with negative PCR reports in the beginning. Hotels introduced packages targeting domestic tourists. Rather than keeping the rooms vacant, hotel entrepreneurs opted to keep their businesses running. Now, many places are already open to tourists with attractive packages for encouragement.
Similarly, the stagnant mountaineering activities gained momentum in 2021. More than 1,000 climbers were permitted to scale different mountains. People in the mountains got to indulge themselves in their field again. Nevertheless, some exited the profession for they doubted the contingencies due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nepal’s decision to resume on-arrival visa services for foreign nationals visiting the country added delight as the number of tourists rose to 23,284 in October, 2021 from 9,898 in September, 2021. The influx of Indian, American and British tourists was remarkable after the service came online.
Upon the request of tourism entrepreneurs, the government also rolled back its decision to make quarantine mandatory for travelers. According to the statistics of the Department of Immigration, a total of 126,283 tourists arrived in Nepal in the 11 months of 2021.
The stagnant tourism industry needed a boost to catch up with its original form. Nepal extended the business continuity loan to the COVID-19 affected tourism, cottage, small and medium industries for the payment of salaries to workers and employees in line with 'Business Continuity Loan Procedure, 2020'. Under this provision, the government initially approved a loan of Rs 1.05 billion. Nepal Tourism Board introduced a short-term employment project aimed at bringing relief, especially to the workers and laborers in the tourism sector. Perhaps the government can look for long-term support for those involved in the tourism business.
COVID-19 has made traveling vulnerable and the only alleviation right now seems to be rapid vaccination of the population. Nepal has successfully vaccinated 80.39 percent of the total population. Of which 46.2 percent have received their first jabs whereas 34.2 percent have been fully vaccinated. As the vaccination drive continues in a full-fledged manner, the tourism sector has started to see a silver lining. Tourism entrepreneurs spent the whole of 2020 figuring out how to adjust with the virus and its outcomes whereas 2021 was the year when they dared to adjust with the new normal and experimented with the ways they could move forward.
As more people are getting COVID-19 vaccines, now they can leave behind the fear of severe infection and make the sector stronger. Trekking trails are starting to get new footprints again, hotels can relive the Nepali saying ‘Guests are Gods’, mountains are giving new heights to climbers’ ambitions and the aircraft are once again getting to stroll through the sky. Tourism in 2022 should be envisioned in a way that such crises can no longer hold the sector hostage. The government’s experience over the last two years should be visible in the preparedness to tackle the pandemic.