Nepal features on every must-visit list. Okay, so what’s the POA?
Complacency is the culprit. And this is just another rant on Nepal’s underdeveloped tourism sector…
UK-based travel website Rough Guides called Nepal the #1 destination for 2016. I don’t want to point fingers, but Nepal Tourism Board (NTA) was thrilled to get the news, according to the news. But they did nothing to follow up.
National Geographic Traveller placed Nepal at #6 on their list of must-visit countries of 2016. Now Nat Geo is pretty legit, you’d think, but the government had too many problems of its own to think about what this meant for Nepal’s tourism scene.
Even “the people’s portal” TripAdvisor ranked Kathmandu #23 on their list of 25 best destinations of 2016. For perspective, Sydney stood at #24, and Kathmandu was the only South Asian city to feature on the list. Impressive, right?
And most recently, Lonely Planet gave Nepal the title of “Best Value Destination” of 2017. A couple of supportive Nepali citizens shared the news on Facebook but when has a Facebook share ever converted into round-trip tickets booked, really?
I think the problem is, we’re used to it now. A little too used to it, actually.
Visit Nepal 2011 came and went, but the Nepal Tourism Board used a shoddily put together a montage video of experiences unique to Nepal, shot in a way that I can only describe as mobile-cam quality. Funnily, the tagline “Naturally Nepal: once is not enough” is one thing they got right; perhaps the gatekeepers of Nepali tourism believe in leaving Nepal so unmanicured that any traveller’s experience of the country is nowhere close to well-curated or organised, forcing them to keep returning — in case they were ambitiously thinking of going from Mechi to Mahakali in one smooth journey.
In January 2016, when the country was still reeling from the disastrous 2015 earthquakes, not to mention the then-ongoing Indian blockade, NTB CEO Dipak Raj Joshi announced that they are going to mark 2016 as the National Tourism Year. After the earthquake, Nepal had gained considerable traction in international news channels, and the unanimous opinion was that a solid boost in tourism might be just what the economy needs to bounce back. Internet articles encouraged travellers to make plans to visit Nepal and support local businesses by bungee jumping, visiting city squares and/or trekking in the Annapurna region. A clear win-win, and in case people were worried about their safety, Nepal was declared safe from tremours now.
Post-quake tourism has picked up now, but for how long? Surely we cannot rely on friends abroad to come as volunteers in health, education and rebuilding homes forever? Not while we still have our national pride, the face of our nation, Tribhuvan International Airport which takes the phrase अतिथी देवो भवः (rough translation: guest is God) and butchers it, syllable by syllable, with depressing interiors, broken trolleys, stuttering conveyor belts, unmanned immigration desks, pungent toilets, and hospitality I hate to describe as lacklustre. I’m surprised how some people enter TIA with wide, curious eyes and resist taking a U-turn back to the plane they disembarked after their first taste. Bless their souls. If I were a foreign national from an MEDC, I would be appalled and demand directions to the nearest Starbucks where I could use free WiFi to tweet my outrage. But I’m not. I’m from a beautiful land that begins with a shitty airport, and I want to apologise to the world for that.
My career in advertising and branding taught me that no ad campaign or promotional activity can save a bad product from disappointing its audiences. This philosophy applies to Nepal as well. Work on improving tourism should begin at reworking on the product i.e. the country. The airports, the transport systems — the roads! — and the environment need intense focus, before we start advertising our offerings or celebrating our featuring on some prestigious travel list or the other. A great product is half the job done. If we have a great product (destination), testimonials from users (travellers) are more than enough to help us land more people who are interested in holidaying in Nepal. There are thousands* of people landing up in Kathmandu despite the country’s million problems. Imagine our potential if we worked towards fixing even a fraction?
*554,747 people came to Nepal from abroad in year 2015, according to data from the Department of Immigration (DoI). Note that earthquake relief was probably the top reason many foreigners flew in. Also, this figure is a good 30% lower than the previous year’s total number of visitors.