Nepal suffered from a devastating shock last year. Here, Nick Woolgrove discusses how Nepal’s tourist industry is trying to recover.
Last April, Nepal shook with the force of a 7.8 earthquake. Coupled with a crippling aftershock, the worst disaster in over eighty years brought the nation to its knees. When commenting on Nepal one must be mindful promoting ‘exact’ figures, yet it is safe to say that almost nine thousand people died, over six hundred thousand homes were destroyed and nearly three million people were in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. While the response from the international community was encouraging, 2015 was already a year when many response agencies were stretched dealing with crises in South Sudan, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the plight of Syrian Refugees.
The humanitarian emergency which ensued had long been dreaded by experts who had prophesied that the combination of Nepal’s architecture, geology and urbanization provide a deadly breeding ground for vulnerability. Poverty, another breeder of vulnerability, in itself renders little investment in terms of disaster management, building safety standards or controlled growth in urban areas and for Nepal revealed a distinct susceptibility to a myriad of internal struggles.
Tourism is the very foundation of Nepal’s economy, contributing to nearly 25% of its GDP and employing close to half a million people. The abundance of beauty in the Himalayas has not gone unnoticed by foreign travellers who flock in their thousands for the trekking seasons each year. Though seasonal, many towns are intentionally catered for these tourists and local inhabitants are thus economically dependent on their custom; for most, the tourist industry is seen as a means to pull yourself out of poverty and achieve a greater social equity. It is no real stretch, therefore, to imagine the consequences such an event has had on the lives and livelihoods of the people who work within the industry, many of whom already lived hand to mouth and wrestled tirelessly below the poverty line.
The immediate effects on the sector were tragic. Early reports suggested that nine out of ten tourists immediately abandoned their trip, hotels and guest lodges experienced damages in excess of 16 billion Nepalese Rupees and almost 150km of trekking trails were ruined, rendering hundreds of porters out of work. However, the charm of Nepal is not isolated for adventure seekers alone, many tourists are seduced by the country’s vibrant culture and this too was by no means unaffected; UNESCO estimated that five out of eight of Nepal’s Sites of Global Cultural and Religious Significance were in direct need of repair. The total damage, to be so crude as to put an estimated financial figure on it, equated to about a third of Nepal’s total GDP.
One year on and progress is slow. Good governance is one of Nepal’s most needed qualities and the lack thereof is revealed all too plainly in the wake of a natural disaster. A lack of information on behalf of the government, the loss of important documentation and property records and the failure to quickly establish a central coordinating body have led to avoidable delays in the recovery process. Travel representatives are keen for Nepal to focus on improving the infrastructure which was so badly damaged: roads are still in desperate need of repair, air connectivity is sporadic at best and power shortages continue to pose a major complication. The reality is that many buildings still lie in rubble, tourist numbers have dropped by at least a third since the quake and the bulk of the initiative to reconstruct the industry has come from private businesses, not the government.
Nevertheless, despite the frustrating speed of the recovery, what does shine out from amidst the dust is the steadfast resilience and unyielding optimism of the Nepalese people. The Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) has promoted 2016 ‘The Year of Survival’ and 2017 ‘The Year of Revival’ and there is an unmistakable drive to look forward to the future.
Central to this rejuvenation so far has been to stimulate internal tourism within Nepal itself, encouraging travel across regions through promotional activities during the festival periods. Recovery is also relying heavily on the presence of Indian Tourists. As Ujjwala Dali, Officiating Director at the NTB recounted, “India and Nepal share close social and political ties, they share ‘roti-beti ka rishta’ (ties of food and family) and scarcely has this fact meant more. The border dispute between the two countries which brought six months of trade restrictions has since been lifted and Indian tour operators are confident about the revival of tours to Nepal. Nevertheless, a restoration of confidence in the global community as a whole to begin travelling and exploring Nepal once again, will be the true deciding factor in the restoration process.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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