Frus­tra­tion as tourists stay away from quake-hit Nepal

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY PAAVAN MATHEMA

Boat­man Hem Gu­rung waits list­lessly on the de­serted banks of Lake Phewa in the shadow of Nepal’s spec­tac­u­lar An­na­purna moun­tain range for tourists that do not come.

“Since the earth­quake, Pokhara has been empty,” Gu­rung com­plained to AFP in the lakeside re­sort, which once thronged with tourists at­tracted by its Hi­malayan vis­tas and out­door ad­ven­ture ac­tiv­i­ties.

“With­out tourists there is no work. I should be mak­ing thou­sands, but at the mo­ment we are lucky to earn a hun­dred or two (US$1-2) a day,” said the 49-yearold, who has worked as a boat­man and tourist guide in Pokhara for 15 years.

Pokhara’s cheery back­packer cafes, ho­tels and hand­i­craft stores es­caped the quake un­scathed — as did the pop­u­lar An­na­purna trekking trails that snake up­wards from the re­sort.

Yet tourist ar­rivals have fallen off a cliff since the April 25 dis­as­ter, and book­ings are 95 per­cent down on the same pe­riod last year.

It is a pat­tern repli­cated across the des­per­ately poor Hi­malayan coun­try, which re­lies on tourism for around four per­cent of its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct and 3.5 per­cent of all em­ploy­ment.

“About 90 per­cent of tour book­ings un­til Septem­ber have been can­celled,” said Dal Ba­hadur Limbu, who runs Kath­man­dubased travel agent Fast Travel and Tours. “Rev­enue from this sea­son is gone.” Many pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions were dev­as­tated by the quake, which to­gether with a strong May 12 after­shock killed nearly 8,800 peo­ple and de­stroyed half a mil­lion homes.

The dis­as­ter struck at the height of the spring trekking sea­son in Nepal and killed dozens of tourists, strand­ing many oth­ers in re­mote moun­tain ar­eas cut off by land­slides and ac­ces­si­ble only by he­li­copter.

It trig­gered a mas­sive avalanche that wiped out the vil­lage of Lang­tang, a stop­ping-off point on a pop­u­lar trekking route of the same name, bury­ing it un­der tonnes of ice and rock.

Another avalanche hit Ever­est base camp at its busiest time ahead of the spring climb­ing sea­son, killing 18 peo­ple.

But many tourist draws were vir­tu­ally un­touched — in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar An­na­purna trails in the west of the coun­try, the wildlife-rich na­tional parks of the south­ern plains and Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini.

‘We are vic­tims too’

“We have to let the world know that we are safe and ready to welcome trav­ellers,” said Ganesh Ba­hadur Bhattarai, who is co­or­di­nat­ing a cam­paign to bring tourists back to Pokhara for the au­tumn sea­son.

The tourism en­tre­pre­neur is push­ing for an in­ter­na­tional air­port in Pokhara — a long-stalled pro­ject con­ceived 40 years ago.

“Kathmandu is the only gate­way for in­ter­na­tional tourists, but it was af­fected by the quake,” he said.

Many Western coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, the United King­dom and Canada, are still ad­vis­ing against all non-es­sen­tial travel to Nepal, cit­ing the risk of af­ter­shocks and fur­ther land­slides in quake-hit ar­eas.

Most travel in­sur­ance poli­cies are in­val­i­dated by such ad­vice, a ma­jor de­ter­rent to tourism.

Many of Nepal’s tourists come from neigh­bor­ing In­dia and China, nei­ther of which have ad­vised against travel.

But ar­rivals from both coun­tries have fallen dra­mat­i­cally and travel com­pa­nies in Nepal said Chi­nese tourists were hav­ing trou­ble get­ting of­fi­cial per­mis­sion to travel there.

Ea­ger to lure for­eign visi­tors back, Nepal’s gov­ern­ment re­cently re­opened the his­toric for­mer royal squares of the Kathmandu Val­ley and de­clared the area open for tourism.

The gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates it needs more than US$400 mil­lion to re­build dam­age to in­fra­struc­ture.

Tourism min­istry spokesman Madan Kr­ishna Sap­kota said the ef­fect might last two more years, with losses es­ti­mated at US$623 mil­lion.

But some ex­perts see that as op­ti­mistic be­cause it does not take into ac­count the trickle-down ef­fect on lo­cal economies.

In Pokhara the hand­i­craft shops and cafes selling tra­di­tional Nepali dishes along­side such back­packer fa­vorites as pizza and pan­cakes stand empty.

Aus­tralian con­struc­tion worker Evan Kosic was among a hand­ful of tourists who had ig­nored pleas from fam­ily and friends to can­cel his travel plans.

“It is not nearly as bad as we thought it would be,” said the 33-year-old af­ter re­turn­ing from a trek in the An­na­pur­nas that only he and his friend showed up for, even though 14 orig­i­nally signed up.

“You prob­a­bly do more dam­age by not com­ing. Peo­ple don’t know how much they are miss­ing out.”

More than 100 paraglid­ers used to take off daily, col­or­ing Pokhara’s skies, but that is down to around 10 flights.

“It wasn’t this bad even dur­ing the war years,” said Pokhara taxi driver Govinda Adhikari, re­fer­ring to the decade-long Maoist in­sur­gency that ended in 2006.

“Our houses are fine, but we are earth­quake vic­tims too.”

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