The government should be doing everything in its ambit to support the ailing tourism industry, which is yet to completely recover from last year’s devastating earthquakes and the nearly five months of the border blockade. In their aftermath, foreign tourist arrivals plummeted, with most hotels in the country lucky to have 20 percent occupancy. The industry would perhaps have collapsed were it not for domestic tourists who heeded the government call to travel within the country and to support the struggling hotels and travel companies. The hospitality sector employs nearly 500,000 Nepalis, many of whom could have lost their jobs if domestic tourists had not picked up the slack. Yet, besides declaring 2073 the ‘Year of internal tourism’ the state has done precious little to support our hospitality sector. Instead the government keeps coming up with all kind of inane ways to discourage domestic travelers. Most recently, it has inexplicably started preparations to limit the use of ‘tourist vehicles’ only to foreign tourists. The message is loud and clear: domestic travelers are not tourists in real sense of the term and even as we roll out red carpets to foreigners, Nepalis will be forced to continue to travel in the most uncomfortable buses and vans run by various syndicates.
Tourism entrepreneurs have rightly condemned the misguided move, pointing out that there is no point in declaring a ‘Year of internal tourism’ if the government takes with the other hand what it gives with one hand. Take the case of the 50-odd tourist buses plying the busy Kathmandu-Pokhara route. The majority of Nepalis who travel to Pokhara take tourist buses and these days domestic travelers easily outnumber foreign tourists in any such long-distance tourist bus. Apparently, the government wants to bring some order in the unruly transport sector and to cut down on accidents, and hence the thought of barring Nepali citizens from tourist vehicles. But we don’t see how limiting the capacity of Nepali consumers to choose their preferred means of transport and forcing them on old, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous vehicles will serve this purpose. What the government should be doing instead is cracking down on the entrenched transport syndicates so that the field is left open for other players from the private sector. If this happens, public vehicles operators will be forced to compete both on price and quality of their services, to the ultimate benefit of Nepali consumers.
Thankfully, the vise-like grip of these syndicates is slowly being loosened. Even in Pokhara, a place notorious for its thuggish transport syndicates, there is these days more competition on its roads, thanks to growing awareness about the insalubrious impact of transport monopolies. But instead of supporting this welcome shift in public attitude, the government seems intent on promoting the old syndicates by legislating who can and cannot get on tourist vehicles. This is a classic case of trying to fix something that isn’t broken. In fact, it is worse: if this proposed Act comes into effect, not only will Nepali passengers be forced to travel in old, uncomfortable and dangerous vehicles, it will also show that the Nepali state discriminates against its own citizens.