After several long – and very difficult – years, Nepal is beginning to feel a bit more optimistic about its future, at least in terms of tourism. Last month, the Nepali government started planning for the future of travel in that country, and has taken the bold step of declaring 2018 "Visit Nepal Year", with the expressed goal of attracting 1 million visitors.
Over the past few years, a series of high profile disasters have led to a dramatic decline in visitors to Nepal, a popular destination for trekking and mountaineering.
For instance, in the spring of 2014, a deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest claimed the lives of 16 porters working there, bringing an abrupt end to that climbing season when commercial guide services, and their Sherpa workers cancelled operations. Later that fall, a massive blizzard hit the Annapurna region, claiming the lives of more than 40 trekkers. That incident was followed by a horrific earthquake in the spring of 2015, which killed more than 9000 people across the country, and resulted in the cancellation of yet another climbing season on Everest and other big mountains.
As a result of this string of unfortunate accidents, the tourism sector in Nepal has taken a dramatic hit. Some reports indicate that it has fallen off by as much as 50 percent, or more. This has caused some locally owned trekking and climbing companies to close their doors, and has left thousands out of work. It seems that as the country struggles to rebuild, foreign visitors have chosen to stay away.
But, their is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The 2016 spring climbing and trekking season in the Himalaya went off without much of a hitch, with more than 550 summits occurring on Everest in the final weeks of May. And while reports indicate that the number of foreign visitors is still down from previous years, travelers have started to return in small, but steadily increasing, numbers.
This has given some within the Nepali tourism sector a reason to be optimistic, including President Bidya Devi Bhandari. He recently outlined a new program within Nepal that is aimed to begin luring travelers back in larger numbers during the 2016/2017 season. The hope is that this program will begin to bear fruit in 2018, when the travel sector expects to fully rebound from the hardships of the past few years.
Beyond that however, Bhandari says that he is working on 10-year plan for Nepali tourism that will chart the course for the future. That plan will not only include ways to lure more visitors from surrounding countries, but other parts of the world as well. The government also hopes to invest in improving local infrastructure as well, making it easier for climbers and trekkers to obtain permits, improving weather forecasting for remote areas, building rescue centers in the Everest and Annapurna regions, and more. The plan would also facilitate the repair of World Heritage Sites damaged in the earthquake, as well as the construction of new museums and other cultural and religious monuments.
Part of the plan for making Nepal more appealing to travelers is to improve the safety of air travel there as well.
Historically speaking, the country has had a poor track record when it comes to aviation accidents, but Bhandari hopes to change that by implementing strict regulations and guidelines. He also hopes to upgrade radar systems operating within Nepal as well, bringing more modern technology to the industry. On top of that, the President hopes to improve the facilities at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, as well as break ground on new airports in some of the more popular tourist regions of the county.
All of this sounds good for travelers hoping to visit Nepal in the near future, but some of the promises should be taken with a grain of salt. The government there is notorious for being inefficient and corrupt, which has led many to wonder if Bhandari actually hopes to accomplish all of the things that he has proposed, or if he's just saying the right things to help bolster the spirits of those working in the tourism sector.
In the past, the Nepali government has shone a propensity to waste millions of dollars, and have come away with little to show for it. Whether or not this will again be the case remains to be seen, but now more than ever Nepali officials need to be focused on achieving their goals. Their country's economic future depends on it, and it would be a shame if they came up short once again.