With the new tourist season (spring) arriving, Nepal may become a preferred destination for international tourists showing their interest in culture and adventure. Since the start of 2022, tourism activities have resumed globally because of the receding of COVID-19. The sensitive hospitality business and other segments of the world economy had remained badly affected with the outbreak of the pandemic three years back. Nepal has recorded a steady recovery in tourist arrivals since last year when the nation welcomed more than 600,000 foreign tourists. Despite a deadly air crash in Pokhara on January 15 this year, tourist arrivals in the country for that month remained encouraging. A total of 55,074 foreign tourists entered the nation by air last month as compared to only 16,436 travellers who came here in the same month last year.
Global tourism witnessed a strong recovery last year when over 900 million tourists travelled internationally. This is double the number logged in 2021. The figure, however, accounts for only 63 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) predicts that Europe and the Middle East could witness international tourist arrivals coming back to pre-pandemic levels in 2023. The Middle East received the strongest relative rise in tourist arrivals with 83 per cent of pre-pandemic levels last year while Europe recorded about 80 per cent. But Asia and the Pacific regained just 23 per cent because of strict COVID restrictions. However, such curbs have been removed gradually with a fall in the number of COVID-19 infections and ensuing deaths.
The world tourism body says international arrivals could reach 80-95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels this year. The recovery rates may vary from one destination to another based on the extent of the economic slowdown, the ongoing recovery of travel in Asia and the Pacific and the development of the Russia-Ukraine war, among others. However, tourists might increasingly look for value for money and travel to destinations nearby home in view of the challenging economic situation.
It is important that China has reopened its international borders, lifting its protracted rigorous ‘zero-COVID policy’. Chinese government has allowed group tours to resume their trips to 20 different countries. It has also begun issuing tourist visas to foreigners. This means that millions of international travellers are expected to visit China this year. As China is the world’s largest tourist source market, its reopening is sure to help boost international tourist arrivals. In 2019, the number of Chinese outbound tourists stood at about 155 million. China also hosted millions of holidaymakers from around the world.
With physical proximity and longstanding friendship with China, Nepal is also looking forward to welcoming more Chinese tourists. But the northern neighbour has not included this Himalayan nation in the former’s list of outbound destinations. However, the Nepal government has requested China to incorporate Nepal in the list, encouraging potential Chinese tourists to visit here. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) recently wrote to the Chinese Embassy based in Kathmandu in this connection. Though China has yet to decide on Nepal’s proposal, Chinese government is likely to do the needful in the near future. It is needles to reiterate that the northern neighbour was the second largest tourist generating market after India for this Himalayan nation before the outbreak of COVID-19. Nearly 170,000 Chinese tourists had visited Nepal in 2019. Hundreds of thousands of Nepali and foreign travellers also used to visit China through Nepal.
Meanwhile, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Chen Song recently said that his country was willing to include Nepal in the list of top tourist destinations so as to motivate Chinese tourists to visit the nation. "Nepal is the favourite destination for Chinese tourists, especially high-end ones. We expect many Chinese tourists will be visiting Nepal soon. Some paper work needs to be done by the two governments in regard to enlisting Nepal in countries for group travel,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, Kathmandu had remained directly connected with several Chinese cities such as Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming, Guangzhou and Hong Kong by air. But as soon as COVID-19 broke out, all regular flights were suspended for almost three years. Only special flights and cargo services were in operation. However, some of the airlines have resumed their flights to and from Kathmandu. Chinese carriers -- Air China, China Southern Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways -- have already restarted their flights on Chengdu-Lhasa-Kathmandu, Guangzhou-Kathmandu and Hong Kong-Kathmandu routes, respectively. Himalayan Airlines, a Nepal-China joint venture, has also resumed its regular flights between Kathmandu and Beijing after a gap of almost three years. Being commercial carriers, they will increase their flight frequencies once there is an increase in demand.
The resumption of air services between the two countries has created glimmers of hope among tourism stakeholders in Nepal. They are assured that the country will receive a large number of Chinese travellers in the days ahead. The country is undoubtedly a popular destination among Chinese tourists. Scenic beauty, wildlife safari and cultural heritage sites are the major attractions in Nepal for Chinese tourists. They are also interested in experiencing hiking, trekking, rafting and other adventure activities. Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Jomsom, Nagarkot and Dhulikhel are the key destinations luring Chinese travellers.
As China is a huge tourist generating nearby market, the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), tourism-related associations and other interested agencies must join hands to highlight diverse tourist attractions Nepal has to offer in the major Chinese cities. Efforts should also be made to bring the newly-built Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara International Airport into full operation in order to give a fillip to the slowly reviving tourism sector.
(Dahal is a deputy executive editor of this daily.)