So 2011 is Nepal Tourism Year, and they are aiming at getting one million tourists into the country during this year. Now I want to be the first person to say that if you even think you might be interested in visiting Nepal you should. I've visited over thirty countries, and Nepal is one that offers more than almost any other. Culture, natural beauty and a relatively low cost (once here) combine for a spectacular holiday. I have plenty of countries I still want to visit, but here i am in Nepal (for the third time) and even though I have spent a combined 10 months or so in this country there is still a lot more that is worth exploring. The little tag line that 'once is not enough' that they are using to advertise their tourism now is accurate. Nepal is a country you could come back to again and again and always find something exciting to do.
Now all of that said, from an outside standpoint this whole tourism year thing seems like it is being as well managed as most Nepali government endeavors; terribly. Now to be fair, some of the promotional pieces that they have put together aren't all that bad. I've seen some decent posters and to be honest the website that they put together looks better than what I would expect (you can see it HERE), but i am highly skeptical that these kind of promotions will bring many additional tourists. Other promotional measures taken overseas are also of dubious value.
The largest problem I currently see is that there is a huge question mark as to what is actually being offered. This uncertainty and ambiguity is really not a good thing as we start to near the time when people are planning their trips for the next year. For many people a trip to Nepal is a rather large undertaking, and it isn't uncommon to plan well in advance. As someone who has a vested interest in how visas will work next year, I don't even know exactly how that will work. I've heard rumors that the normal five month limit will be lifted, and others say no way. I've heard that the visa fee will be waived, I've heard that only a second visa fee will be waived, and I've heard that they will not waive any visa fees. There were rumors of increased flights into KTM through both Nepali airlines and other international carriers, but as someone who is researching flight costs for family and friends for early next year, I can attest that they are as high as ever right now.
On the NTB website (Site is HERE) there are some stated goals;
1- Establish Nepal as a choice of premier holiday destination with a definite brand image,
2- Improve and extend tourism related infrastructures in existing and new tourism sites,
3- Enhance the capacity of service renders,
4- Build community capacity in the new areas to cater the need of the tourists, and
5- Promote domestic tourism for sustainability of the industry.
Now they announced this project in 2008, and all five of these stated goals are not anywhere close to being realized. You could argue that they were over ambitious to start with, or that most of it was a way to funnel public funds into the hands of connected people within the government and contractors that did the promotion, and you may have a strong argument. But if certain steps had been taken, ones that were available with the funding they received they could be much closer.
Now point one the devil is in the definition, but Nepal will not be a premier holiday destination any time soon. It lacks the infrastructure, it lacks many amenities that western tourists would consider required to fit that definition, and it would need destinations that included more relaxing experiences. Nepal is an adventure tourism destination, and that is what it will remain for the foreseeable future, its appeal is only to a limited segment of those societies outside Nepal and that really should be where the focus of their marketing should stay for now.
Now number two is something that I agree is a good goal, but has it been done? Not that I can tell. In fact sites like Durbar square in Kathmandu seem less accessible now than the first time I arrived due to the increase in traffic through that part of the city. Roads to trail heads like Dunche and Jiri are amongst some of the most frightening I have ever been on and the buses that take you to them very rarely inspire any confidence. As to new destinations, there is a lot of buzz about the Great Himalayan Trail, but I'm not aware of any tourist sites receiving any significant upgrades or easing of infrastructure.
Number three has not been implemented to my knowledge, and I don't have a whole lot to say about it.
Number four is implying that an infrastructure would be created for tourism in these new tourism areas they are developing. Again aside from some talk of expanded infrastructure on the Great Himalayan trail I have no idea what they are even promoting that is new. I should add that I actively look for these kind of things, I love going to new and different places here, so if these places are being worked on, the promotional division is doing a terrible job of getting the word out about them.
I can't say a whole lot about number five, aside from saying that I've been more places in Nepal than many Nepali's I have talked to, but many of them don't express a whole lot of interest in going to the same kind of places that western tourists like to go. Mostly when I bump into Nepali's traveling in the same circles as myself they are going to Hindu pilgrimage sites like Mukinath or Gosainkund lakes. You see some people going to Pokhara or to Kathmandu, but not really as tourists so much. While there is a segment of Nepali society, especially in Kathmandu, that has the time and the money to travel within Nepal as domestic tourists, most seem to be lacking the desire. I could however be very wrong about this one.
Now anyone can complain or say negative things about the job someone else is doing, that's easy, the harder thing is to come up with sollutions and practicle ways of meeting at least the obtainable goals that were mapped out for this project. There are a couple of cheap inexpensive things that could have been done, and then there are other things that are not as cheap, but would have much larger payouts. So here are a few of my recommendations for things that could be done to make Nepal Tourism Year, and really tourism in general more attractive and increase the number of tourists.
1- Beautify Thamel- This is the tourist nexus of Kathmandu. Now I love Kathmandu, I chose to move here from the US, but many (meaning 90%) of tourists I talk to describe Kathmandu as something like hell. Westerners can't stand the honking (the use of horns has a cultural difference), the streets that are both for foot traffic and speeding motorcycles is unnerving to many, they hate the burning trash, and the constant harassment by kids sniffing glue, touts and tiger balm salesmen can be really tiresome. Most tourists come through this section of the city at one point in their travels, so changing this one section could change the opinion of many tourists, and more importantly change what they tell their friends back home. So what to do:
A- Close Thamel to Vehicles- This is done in tourist districts the world over with the result of making them much more pleasant. Now there are some vested interests (most notably the two parking garages in the area) that wouldn't like this plan, but that would immediately make that section of town much more enjoyable and immediately give a more laid back atmosphere where tourists are not jumping out of the way of oncoming traffic or cursing at the honking taxi that is behind them. Bollards and police could enforce the zones easily enough it would seem.
B- Trash Collection & Waste Baskets- Waste baskets or rubbish bins are cheap, and with the cost of labor in Nepal the collection should be as well. Trash on the streets is an eyesore that can be easily cleaned up and managed. while city wide this would be great, if it at least worked to clean up where most tourists see it would be an improvement.
C- Enforce a No Harassment Policy- I would confine this rule to just Thamel, make it a special zone or something, but limit the selling of goods and services to people that have shops. Get the guys selling tiger balm and those annoying instrument things as well as the trekking, rafting and other scammers off the street. If someone wants a service or a handicraft there are hundreds of stores in Thamel where you can get those things, tourists don't need to be bothered every step they take by people trying to sell them things that they don't want.
2- Diversify the Tourist Seasons- Right now most people are under the impression that Nepal is not worth visiting in the "off seasons". This is a terrible misconception that needs to be dealt with so that people will come to Nepal on a more even schedule. Trekking in some of the western parts of the country, the back side of Annapurna and even the Langtang region that I just did can be very enjoyable this time of year. For people that are traveling here for more cultural purposes it would seem that much more attractive to come during the times of year when the country isn't over run with trekkers. Also the myth of the monssons needs to be dispelled. The monsoon rains are not the endless deluge that many westerners believe them to be, in fact most days during the monsoons are no different than what many parts of western countries are like year round. The perception that Nepal can't be traveled in during this season really reduces tourism, and it doesn't have to be that way.
3- Reduce and Open Some Restricted Trekking Areas- Some of the existing restricted routes would be the easiest to open up and develop. If you really plan on doubling the number of tourists, especially in the peak seasons, then you need to give them places to go. As the new roads reduce the appeal of large sections of Annapurna, it only makes sense to open up some of those nearby areas that currently require guides and additional fees and paperwork.The areas that stand out as able to accommodate trekkers with only a minimal increase in infrastructure would be the Nar & Phu valleys, as well as Manaslu. Making Upper Mustang and Dolpo more accessible might not hurt either. By doing this you not only open these places up to more tourists dollars, give tourists more options as to where they can go, you also create an incentive for people to come back to Nepal for a new hike that they wouldn't have done before.
4- Create Financial Incentives That Are Clear- As I said at the beginning, one of the big problems with this campaign has been its ambiguity. If this years financial indicators are any forecast to the future, many western nations will be filled with economic uncertainty and reduced incomes. This makes it all the more important to promote Nepal in a way that reduces the largest costs, which is getting here, permits and visas. Reduce or negate visa fees and streamline the process, so that when tourists get off the plane there is a favorable first impression. The current first impression is one of inefficient over priced bureaucracy that one does not often encounter at "premier holiday destinations". If there is any way to reduce flight costs that would also help get people here. Currently the better deals coming from the States are somewhere near $1500 which is about as high as it has been since I've checked flights here. Any incentives that would reduce that up front financial obstacle would be a big help to getting people here.
5- Target the right Population- Look, hardly anyone in the US or Europe uses travel agents since the internet has been around, so the promotion or development of trips that are to be peddled through overseas travel agencies will not bring the numbers. Besides, package tourists generally come for shorter stays, they spend most of their money on some foreign firms and do less to benefit the larger segment pf Nepali society. Independent travelers on the other hand often stay for a month or longer, spend their money at more diverse restaurants, adventure outfits, shops and hotels and all that money goes directly to Nepali people, it isn't siphoned off by western tour operators or one large Nepali travel company. Target independent travelers, not only in their home countries but ones that may already be in places like India or south east Asia.
Well those are my thoughts. I realize it's all a pipe dream, but thought I'd put it out there. Nepal is a great destination, and it could receive far more tourists than it currently does, but my guess is that the promoters won't be able to get out of their own way.