KATHMANDU, May 14: The famous Kailash Yatra (pilgrimage by Hindus to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar Lake) via Nepal has fallen into uncertainty this season as the government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has introduced a slew of measures including a mandatory provision on payment for tour packages through banking channels.
Although Nepal Rastra Bank on Friday relaxed some rules for transactions in US dollars to facilitate pilgrimage to the holy site in Tibet, tour operators say the Kailash Yatra remains uncertain this season. Nepali tour operators facilitated travel to Manasarovar via the Hilsa and Rasuwagadhi border points for both Indian and Nepali pilgrims until last year.
Over 20,000 Indian pilgrims visit Kailash each year between May and September with the help of Nepali tour operators. They take the pilgrims to either Rasuwagadhi or Hilsa border point and then sub-contracted the onward tour to Tibetan operators.
Each pilgrim on average paid between US$ 1500 to US$ 2500 to tour operators for the Kailash Yatra via Nepal. Until last year, the dollar transaction was not an issue for Nepali tour operators. Indian pilgrims would pay Nepali operators the cost of the package and the latter would then hand over to Tibetan operators the cost of the Tibet part of the tour at Hilsa or Rasuwagadhi. However, the TAR government this year has made it mandatory to transact the entire cost of the tour package through banking channels.
TAR has a separate body, China-Indian Pilgrims Service Center, to oversee Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash Mansarovar. Although the TAR government entrusted that responsibility to licensed tour operators from the private sector until last year, tour operators in Nepal said TAR has now made an arrangement to oversee the tours through the Service Center.
As tour operators in Nepal complained that it was not possible to transfer the cost of the entire tour package through banking channels due to legal complications and other practical reasons, the TAR government has offered Nepali operators an option of depositing at least US$ 100,000 in advance and topping up the amount based on the number of pilgrims embarking on the Kailash Yatra. Small tour operators in Nepal say they cannot afford to deposit such a huge amount in the bank.
Although Nepal Rastra Bank provides currency exchange of US$ 1,500 per person for Nepalis, this facility is not available for foreign nationals. In view of the complications faced by Nepali operators, the central bank has made arrangements to facilitate US dollars and deposit this in banks in TAR. This, among other things, allowed the operators to deposit a maximum 50 percent of the total amount received in foreign currency to the credit of the agency concerned in TAR.
Tour operators, however, say this is insufficient as nearly two-thirds of the package cost goes to the Tibetan operators.
President of Association of Kailash Tour Operators Nepal (AKTON), Narayan Pokharel, said they are unable to book tour packages this year due to some issues related to funding under the mandatory provision introduced by TAR on use of banking channels.
“Since the central bank has relaxed some provisions regarding US dollar transactions, we are hoping to start booking tour package to Kailash starting May 20,” he said.
But most operators say they are not very optimistic .
Around 15,000 Nepalese are believed to find employment due to the ever increasing numbers of Indian pilgrims going to Kailash via Nepal. There are fears that the new requirement on use of banking channels would make the Nepali operators unable to handle the tours. “Indian tour operators may now take the pilgrims to Kailash directly on their own to get over the legal hassles in sending foreign currency abroad from Nepal,” said Pokharel.