Sunday, September 22, 2002

waiting for no one

Nepal once welcomed a steady stream of visitors, but the long-running Maoist uprising and a series of other events have brought the tourism trade to its knees

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2002)

THIS IS A TOWN that tourism built. Along Kathmandu's streets and alleyways, rows of travel agencies, postcard kiosks, souvenir stands and budget hotels stand patiently waiting for customers. Alongside, hawkers sit with piles of curved kukri knives and Buddhist tanka paintings. But instead of wearing the sunny grins that once endeared Nepalese to travellers, the hawkers' faces look glum and tired. Business is bad.

Six years of a simmering Maoist uprising have taken their toll, as has a government state of emergency, not to mention continuing travel warnings from the governments in Washington and London and the global downturn in travel following the September 11 attacks. Against such a background, many travellers have decided this isn't the year to make the pilgrimage to the Mount Everest base camp or take in the famed Annapurna mountain range. Up to the end of July, tourist arrivals were down 37% on the same period in 2001, already a bad year, when arrivals dropped 17% over the full year. For a country in which tourism was expected to contribute three percentage points of GDP this year and where the travel industry accounts for nearly one in 15 jobs, this is close to a disaster.

Hoteliers will admit that more than half their rooms are sitting empty. But if the deserted streets of Thamel -- Kathmandu's tourist ghetto -- are a fair indicator, the city has more guesthouses than it has guests. At night, Kathmandu takes on the eerie aspect of a ghost town. Soldiers man checkpoints set up to discourage saboteurs. A curfew ensures bars are closed by 11 p.m.

The industry is feeling the pain from top to bottom. One of Kathmandu's countless walk-in travel-services companies, World Touch Tour & Travels, has had nary a customer in six months. "We are all worried we'll have to close down," says one staffer. "All day I have to wait for the guests, but nobody comes. Sometimes 10 days go by without seeing anybody." A nine-year-old girl selling embroidered handbags had adjusted her usual patter: "Please sir, 100 rupees [$1.30] for two, 100 rupees for two. Please sir, I have no business. Please sir, 100 rupees for five."

The trekking industry has perhaps been the hardest hit. Malla Treks, a respected high-end outfitter that sells most of its trips abroad, has already received cancellations for 50%-60% of the trips scheduled for the October-November trekking season, says General Manager Rajendra Shrestha. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, a guide-turned-tout for Himalayan Glacier Trekking, seeming desperate for someone to talk to in Thamel, confesses he hasn't landed a client in three months.

The crisis is the result of a chain of events over the past few years, according to Pradeep Raj Pandey, chief executive of the Nepal Tourism Board. First, a Kashmiri militant group hijacked an Indian Airlines flight at Kathmandu airport in December 1999. Then, in a bizarre incident at the royal palace in June 2001, King Birendra and eight other members of the royal family were gunned down, apparently by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then shot and fatally wounded himself. In the wake of the killings, the Maoists stepped up their activities. Not long afterward came the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington -- events that devastated the tourism business worldwide. Finally, last November, after a series of deadly attacks, Nepal's government declared a state of emergency, which for the first time allowed the mobilization of the army against the rebels. (The state of emergency, which also limits free speech, was revoked in late August, primarily so candidates can campaign without restrictions ahead of November's scheduled elections.) "So the whole world has been focused on violence, emergency and insurgency, an impression that couldn't be further from the truth," Pandey says.
"The board's challenge today," he adds, "is to take the help of or convince the media to help us clear the air: to say, 'Yes, as news media you must present the facts,' but to seek a way to put the facts in perspective, to say, 'Yes, there has been trouble in certain areas, but, yes, there is no risk to the tourist'."

It's not an enviable task. Although the tourism board has launched an ambitious public-relations drive, dubbed Destination Nepal Campaign 2002/2003, to reposition the country "as a reliable, safe and attractive destination," it has a budget of only 20 million Nepalese rupees. That won't do much to counter the impression of the country created by the media over the past six years: The Maoist uprising has led to a steady stream of press reports on the daily death toll (fuelled by the security forces' take-no-prisoners approach) that has probably made the fight seem larger and bloodier than it actually is.

At the same time, it's not clear just how safe tourists are in Nepal. The tourism board and Pandey maintain that the Maoists have not targeted foreign travellers or tourist-related sites. But the accidental explosion of a bomb at a hotel that was being used as a base by Maoist saboteurs and an attack on Lukla airport, which is used by tourists travelling to Mount Everest, are ominous reminders that it's always possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nor can there be any guarantees that the Maoists will not adopt more radical tactics in response to the government's relentless efforts to stamp them out. Already, walkers making the journey through the Maoist-controlled western areas from Simikot to the Tibetan border have reported being asked to make "donations" to the revolutionary cause. Once, a box of cigarettes was enough; now it's about $100 per person.

Perhaps ironically, Pandey points to the insurgents' own words in his efforts to reassure visitors. "Not only has no one been injured or threatened or physically harmed," he says, "the insurgents themselves have issued their own statements saying that they recognize the importance of tourism to Nepal and have said they won't harm visitors."

Those statements, though, have proved to be a mixed blessing for the government. In a letter faxed to the media early this year, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai -- deputy to Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist leader commonly known as Prachanda or "the Fierce" -- wrote that foreign tourists are "most welcome into the revolutionary base areas." But the letter also warned travellers against patronizing the "anti-people and anti-national monopolistic structure" that comprises "all the five-star hotels and travel businesses" in Nepal. Bhattarai also "kindly advised" travellers not to venture into areas where fighting is active because of the risk of being caught in the crossfire.

Not the most reassuring invitation, and it hasn't resulted in a huge surge in tourists. But the tactfully worded message has spawned a boutique trekking industry of a new kind. A stream of intrepid journalists are walking into the hills to meet the revolutionaries and generate dispatches that, to at least one local newspaper editor, read like a new kind of travelogue: "My trip to meet the Maoists." And from the tourism board's perspective, more accounts of reporters' derring-do can only mean one thing: more frightened tourists.