November 30, 2022
KATHMANDU – Chinese airlines have resumed services to Nepal, announcing that recovery is developing in the tourism industry, which is a key indicator of the country’s economic health.
And tourists walking the streets convey an upbeat mood after more than two years of despair, a fact confirmed by the central bank on Sunday, which said in its first-quarter monetary assessment that things are starting to look up.
Travel entrepreneurs said international tourism continued to show strong signs of recovery, with many countries reporting a return to more than 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels in the first 10 months of 2022.
In Nepal, arrivals are still less than half of what they were before Covid 19, a state that insiders blame on a lack of promotion.
In October, the country welcomed 88,582 foreign visitors, the highest monthly arrivals since March 2020.
Arrivals in Nepal between January and October totaled 473,563, according to the Nepal Tourism Board, the country’s official tourism promotion body.
“The figures are too small when we consider that tens of thousands of people depend on tourism for their livelihood. If we don’t act cautiously and market aggressively, we will definitely be defeated,” said Shyam Raj Thapaliya, managing director of Osho World Travel Nepal, one of Nepal’s leading travel agencies.
He said Sri Lankan Airlines recently organized a familiarization trip for travel and tour operators from around the world to show them the country up close.
“The carrier also organized a global tourism conference in a bid to reinvigorate their tourism industry, which is their major foreign exchange earning sector. We don’t see any enthusiasm in Nepal. Someone has to act,” Thapaliya said.
According to him, China’s opening up could help Nepal’s tourism recover.
China was Nepal’s second largest tourism source market after India. Arrivals from the northern neighbor were blocked after all flights connecting China and Nepal were suspended.
Air China resumed its services a month and a half ago.
Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines, China’s largest airline by passenger volume, will resume flights on the Kathmandu-Guangzhou sector from Tuesday after a gap of nearly a year and a half.
Dhiraj Chandra Shrestha, deputy sales manager of China Southern, said they will initially operate a weekly flight on Tuesdays. It will be a point-to-point flight with no transit stops. “We will increase the frequency based on demand,” he said.
Shrestha said 70 passengers had booked seats on the first Kathmandu-Guangzhou flight after the suspension, most of them students and businessmen, while 32 passengers had booked seats on the return flight.
“Due to China’s quarantine requirements at present, there is no way for tourists to come to Nepal,” Shrestha said, adding that China has started issuing visas for Nepalis.
On November 11, China announced significant changes to its strict Covid-19 measures for arriving travelers, reducing quarantine on arrival from seven to five days, followed by three days of home isolation.
The newly launched measures include ending the practice of canceling international flights if too many passengers from previous flights test positive on arrival – the major barrier to visiting China – according to the State Council’s Covid-19 prevention team.
Shrestha said China has also revised its RT-PCR policy requirement. “Travellers to China must now take RT-PCR tests within 48 hours of their flight,” he said.
Previously, they had to do two RT-PCR tests within 48 or 24 hours of the flight, plus another antigen test before the flight. Travel to and from China has fallen as the country pursues “dynamic zero Covid” policies.
“Now, most of the restrictions have been eased,” Shrestha said.
Without visitors from China, the Nepal Tourism Board estimated that arrivals in Nepal would reach nearly 600,000 this year, nearly 50 percent of pre-pandemic numbers.
“Despite the zero-Covid policy, China has opened its doors, which is obviously a good sign for tourism in Nepal,” said Mani Lamichhane, spokesperson for the Nepal Tourism Board.
“But since China’s economy is slowing due to its zero-Covid strategy and weakening global demand, we still shouldn’t be happy. But the arrivals from China, if they increase, will certainly lift Nepal out of the current crisis.”
On March 10, Nepal threw the door wide open to tourists, removing all pre-arrival testing requirements in a bid to recharge its moribund tourism industry.
However, international tourist arrivals did not increase as expected due to the Russia-Ukraine war.
Travel entrepreneurs say that because inflation has risen so high, people in all countries, especially in Europe and the United States, have cut their travel budgets amid signs of recession. This has been reflected in Nepal’s tourism industry.
From hotel rooms to plane tickets and from food and drinks to local transport, prices have gone up.
The appreciation of the US dollar has not translated into cheaper travel for foreigners traveling to Nepal because fares are quoted in dollars.
“But a strong dollar will benefit hotels, restaurants, domestic airlines, tour operators and tourism and the country’s economy as a whole. The appreciation of the dollar means increased revenue for all local agencies in Nepal,” said Lamichhane.
“So now is the right time to increase the number of tourists, which will help revive the ailing economy.”
While there are signs of recovery in tourism, the private sector is worried about the European Commission’s decision to keep Nepal on the air safety list even after almost a decade.
Last Thursday, the European Commission continued its ban on Nepalese airlines for failing to meet international safety standards. They remain on the updated EU Aviation Safety List, meaning they are still banned from European skies.
The commission said member states should continue to verify the effective compliance of air carriers certified in Nepal with relevant international safety standards by prioritizing ground inspections of those air carriers.
“It is a shame that Nepal is still on the air safety list even after almost 10 years,” aviation analyst Hemant Arjyal told the Post in a recent interview. “It could impact Nepal’s tourism industry and economy in the long run.”
“Reluctance to listen to aviation watchdogs will cost Nepal in the long run. Although Nepalese airlines do not fly directly to the EU, tourists, especially in the high-end segment, are reluctant to travel to countries that have been flagged by the aviation watchdog,” said Arjyal.
“Nepal welcomes backpackers, the low-end segment of tourists who usually don’t care much if it’s safe to fly to Nepal or not; but for the luxury segment, safety matters a lot,” said Arjyal.
Travel and tour operators say the travel insurance premium of tourists visiting Nepal increases every time the European Commission updates its aviation safety lists. They fear other countries may impose stricter travel advisories as Nepal remains on the air safety list.
“Obviously, this is a big issue and the government should be serious about it,” Lamichhane said. “This issue needs urgent attention before worse things happen to the industry.”