“Nepali Hotels are on-par with int'l hotels in terms of quality of services”
Soaltee Hotel celebrated its Golden Jubilee a few months ago. What are the major accomplishments of the hotel in the 50 years of its operation?
Fifty years is a mark of a lifetime. We have survived, that itself is a mark. Despite going through many difficulties over the years, we survived without lowering the quality of services. If we had lowered the quality of services, it would have taken us considerable time to regain the reputation. I think Soaltee has contributed in two ways. Firstly, we have set some specific parameters in the Nepali hotel industry. Many new hotels have opened and they are not less than us in terms of facilities. Many are even superior to us. They have the latest technologies. However, hoteliers nationally and internationally see to it if they have equaled Soaltee or not.
Secondly, Soaltee has always been the largest contributor of trained workforce for the Nepali hotel industry. We have trained the human resource since the beginning by collaborating with Oberois. The hotel industry has been offering some of the high-paying jobs for Nepalis wherever they go.
What achievements in terms of lessons learnt have been for Soaltee over these years?
We have done many mistakes in the past and there are many lessons to be learnt. The late prince Himalaya Shah and other members of the royal family established this hotel taking a lot of risks. The required workforce was barely available in the beginning. There was not a single person who had ever worked in a hotel. During the early years, we used to bring staffs from India. It was very difficult for us to find replacement in departments like finance and human resource if an employee left the job. Now, we don’t have such a situation. Now, there is big turnover in hotel industry and sufficient workforce to run the business.
As the founder president of the Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) how do you assess the role of the hotel industry and the association in the country’s tourism sector over these past five decades?
The hotel industry as a whole has been more successful than other industries. The Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) was founded by seven hotels. It brought the hoteliers together ultimately contributing to the overall development of the Nepali tourism industry. The association in the past used to get much respect from the government as well as general public than any other industrial associations.
Nevertheless, the hotel sector seems to be lagging behind the new sectors such as liquor, banking and cement…
Theirs and our markets are different. The sectors you’ve mentioned comprise of manufacturing and consumer-based industries. They have volume in terms of production and sales and have much scope. But the scope is limited for companies in the hospitality and tourism sector. On top of that, the factor related to profitability does not depend on the industry alone. We need proper government rules and regulations in this regard.
Many investors are entering the hotel business despite less profitability. What might be the reasons?
I see this as a problem for the industry at a certain time. We have the tendency of jumping in a business that seems to be successful without properly assessing and identifying if such a success is long-term or not. But, I can understand why. Nepalis don’t have the proper climate and opportunity for investment. Nonetheless, the repercussion will be that the industry will have excess capacity. We have not been able to bring the targeted tourists.
We have been targeting the one million-tourist mark for so many years. And it is sure that we won't reach the target for another couple of years due to certain reasons like poor infrastructure and other essential things required for fostering tourism. Just look at the Tribhuvan International Airport’s (TIA) deplorable condition. Reasons like these have been the major contributing elements for the country not to have high market tourism.
Won't the hotels suffer because of over capacity?
I think this will affect the industry at some stage. We will suffer without the ability to bring more tourists. The high number of hotels will eventually invite unhealthy competition. It is likely to start a price war in the industry.
Won't the international marketing and entry of international chain help in this regard?
That depends on us. We need to be clear on one thing that the entry of international hotel chains does not increase tourism market of the country. But, they will expand the knowledge base of the industry. Now the market has developed in such a way that you need to cover every segment to gain the full benefit. The InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), for instance, has helped us to widely understand many things regarding a five-star hotel.
What changes have you observed in the Nepali tourism business in these five decades?
I think that the level of our knowledge has expanded as we have started travelling a lot in recent years. Nepalis are now able to compare the hotels here and abroad. Honestly speaking, no hotel in Nepal is a five-star if we compare at the sub-continent standards, let alone the global level. Various factors contribute to that. The downturn the Nepali hotel sector faced for so many years has been one of the main reasons. It takes time to recover from such a steep decline. We have been struggling to recover over the past few years expecting the market to become better.
What trends have you observed changing over these years?
Earlier, we used to have large hotels in places like Kathmandu and few other cities. Now, boutique hotels are opening in the capital valley and other parts of the country. Despite being smaller, they have been maintaining good service quality. Similarly, wildlife tourism has become a big market which in the past we hadn’t thought about. And, the sector has expanded to trekking or even village tourism. We need to focus on all these markets. That is the only way of increasing tourism in the country. Globally, customers are far educated than before. They just don’t come here to enjoy the luxury. They are also coming to see how the Nepali society and communities are.
The number of Chinese tourists visiting Nepal has been rising steadily. How can we reap benefit from them?
China has become one of the world’s strongest countries in terms of tourism. Large number of foreigners visit China every year and the country has the largest outbound tourists. Traditionally, the arrival of Indian tourists has been the bread and butter for the Nepali tourism business. It has now been enhanced and has grown bigger with increasing number of Chinese tourists. Nevertheless, we have not been able to exploit the potential of having positioned between the world’s two largest economies. The inflow of tourists here from the two countries is just a spillover and not because we are one of the top destinations.
What would you consider as the major strength of Nepali tourism?
Return visitors have been one of the major strength for Nepali tourism for a long time. Nepal is one such destination which has more return visitors than any other countries. It is because of the Nepalis themselves. Our behaviour, attitude and the smile we put up while welcoming foreigners keep on attracting people who have visited Nepal.
Nevertheless, we are lagged behind in terms of developing tourism products and promotion of the country. Our tourism sector still depends in three centers - Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara and Chitwan. We need to expand it to other areas as well.
I have been repeatedly saying that the greatest future of Nepal lies in tourism after water resources.
What have we missed in terms of marketing?
Our marketing is very poor despite significant increase in NTB’s budget. We can be one of the world’s major tourist destinations if we can market ourselves in a proper manner. Regarding the promotion, we have instances in the past where airlines of India used to sell their packages by including Nepal as a destination. Air India once promoted its seven packages at New York. Out of the seven, Nepal was included in five. All five packages that included Nepal were sold out, but the remaining two did not. We have done just lip-service in terms of tourism promotion which is not supplemented by the efforts.
The inability of the national flag-carrier to add new aircrafts and enhance its service quality has led to the entry of many international airlines in Nepal. How do you evaluate this scenario?
Airlines are essential to the tourism industry of any country. Maintaining quality of services in the airlines is important to ensure a healthy inflow of tourists. The quality of an airliner doesn't just depend on serving good food and providing a glass of champagne. It depends on how it treats the passengers. It starts from the check-in to check-out. Airliners such as Etihad Airways and Jet Airways have been providing excellent services to their passengers. If you want certain high-value air passengers, you need to provide that kind of service.
However, our flag carrier has not been able to grasp the immense market opportunities despite the addition of new aircrafts in its fleet.
Airline industry is more capital intensive than the hotel sector. Airlines need to compete internationally and they can’t say we are from a small nation. I suggest the government to bring a strategic partner to handle the management and operations of the Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) to improve and revitalise the national flag carrier. The Indian group TATA, for instance, can be one such partner. It has successfully operated Air India for many years. They will bring in a high-level management and operational know-how in the ailing NAC.
How has Soaltee contributed in the international branding of Nepali tourism?
We have consistently maintained our standard and quality of services. Soaltee’s hospitality has left lasting impression on our customers. When they talked about this in their home countries, many foreigners were attracted towards visiting Nepal. Similarly, our participation in numerous international trade and hospitality fairs throughout the years also contributed to bringing Nepali tourism at the global stage.
Why Oberoi Group left the management of Soaltee?
We had an agreement of 25 years with Oberoi. It happened with the end of the agreement. It was not because of any conflict at all.
A new four-star Soaltee property is about to open in Nepalgunj. After that Pokhara will have another such hotel. Why did you choose a place like Nepalgunj which is not a tourist destination?
Nepalgunj has become a development headquarter for entire western Nepal which houses offices of national and international development agencies in large numbers. Nonetheless, there are no good accommodation facilities despite having an airport, road connecivity and other basic infrastructure.
Another purpose of opening the hotel is to attract Indian customers. Today many Indians choose Nepali hotels as their favoured venues for wedding. Since Nepalgunj is a bordering city, we can attract the big wedding market of India. I believe that the property will be successful from day one.
Likewise, it is important for us to build a base in Pokhara if we want to expand the Soaltee brand chain throughout Nepal despite the fact that the hotel industry there is overbuilt. Pokhara is the next happening city after Kathmandu for foreigners and we can showcase our products better there.
What factors differentiate international five-star hotels from Nepali five-star hotels like Soaltee and Hyatt?
We are on-par with the international level hotels in terms of quality of services. But we lack the facilities. Similarly, we have not been able to offer a wide variety of food choices to the guests. The quality of food for the price they pay is alright, but the guests must have choice.
I think many issues regarding the facilities are due to weaknesses in inspections. The general managers need to bring up such issues and solutions as well.
What do you think would help increase arrival of tourists?
Firstly, we must improve the key infrastructures of connectivity. Secondly, a good level of hygiene needs to be maintained at all places. Litters and dust are everywhere around. That’s why Japanese don’t prefer to visit here because they can't stand filth and dirt. Even Indians and Chinese complain about the level of hygiene. Similarly, the number of public restrooms is very less here and the existing ones have not been maintained properly.
Nepali tourism industry still relies on seasonality. How can we successfully run it for 12 months?
This is an area where we need to focus on to diversify the market. We now need to explore probable markets with holiday seasons different from our traditional source countries.
NTB is in a process to finalise the unique selling propositions (USPs) of the country’s tourism sector. What are your suggestions for formulating effective USPs?
We need to learn from the mistakes. NTB needs to start with the revision of the First Tourism Master Plan which was introduced in 1972 to assess our achievements and failures and weaknesses. It might not be useful always to bring something new every time. But it is important to learn lessons from the mistakes.
“We are putting all our efforts to run Nepali tourism round the year”
It's been over 50 years of institutional approach towards tourism in Nepal. What are the major accomplishments of the Nepali tourism industry in this half century?
In these 50 years, a perception has been created that Nepal is a tourism capital of South Asia. There are a few contributing factors in this regard. Tourism in Nepal began with the start of modern tourism in the world. Another reason has been that joint tourism packages of Bhutan, Sikkim, and the Tibet autonomous region of China are created keeping Nepal in mind. Similarly, short flight distances from Kathmandu to the capital cities of many South Asian countries have been the other reason. They can be reached within around one and half hours by air from Kathmandu which is centrally located in the region. Likewise, also the apex bodies of hospitality, travel and tour businesses such as Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) and Nepal Association of Travel and Tour Agents (NATTA) that were established 50 years ago. This shows we are seniors in this industry in the South Asia region.
One of the strongest points has always been the friendlier approach of Nepali citizens towards the foreigners. The organic hospitality which the Nepali have been providing attracts many people from across the world to revisit Nepal. In the meantime, the diversification in the areas of tourism has also contributed largely. Nepali tourism which was centered in sightseeing and mountaineering in the beginning has now expanded to watching wildlife and engaging in vacation activities. In places like Thamel, Pokhara Lakeside and Sauraha of Chitwan, you can experience the world's best foods rarely found elsewhere in the region. Similarly, transportation facilities like green number-plate vehicles that are not affected even during the strikes as well as the arrangement of tourist police who provide safety and assist foreign visitors have also been creating some difference in the tourism business in Nepal.
Where are our failures?
We have not been able to develop basic infrastructure for tourism. Also, mostly tourists come to our country by themselves without anyone from here in Nepal trying to bring them. We have not taken initiative to bring tourists to Nepal. It indicates that we are weak in approaching foreigners to make them visit Nepal. Big Nepali business houses related to hospitality and tourism are not present in the source countries. We just handle the tourists that the agents send to us. We have traditional kind of marketing, communication and promotion tools even now. We have not been able to communicate why they should visit Nepal. Similarly, we have lagged behind in exploring opportunities in adventure tourism despite being a pioneer in the segment in the South Asia region.
What changes have taken place in these five decades for the tourism industry?
Nepal is considered among the very resilient destinations. If we observe the last 20-25 years, our country has been affected by frequent internal conflicts. Despite conflicts and lack of basic infrastructure, Nepali tourism sector has sustained. Our source countries have changed over these years. Earlier, around 30 percent tourists visiting Nepal used to be Indians. In recent years, Chinese have overtaken the Indians in numbers. Five-six years back, only around 50,000 Chinese tourists used to come here annually which has now reached to about 115,000. The number of Australian visitors has risen in recent years as well.
Similarly, more tourists from countries including New Zealand, South Korea and Myanmar are visiting Nepal than ever before. Earlier, Germany, France, United Kingdom and Japan were the big source countries for us. That has now been changed due to few reasons like the lack of direct flights to those destinations which we used to have before. Nevertheless, such changes are a worldwide phenomenon. Before, tourism used to be run in a fixed itinerary. But now there are millennial segments of people across the world. They are more digitally connected and make customised itinerary and buy things online. Nowadays, independent traveling is increasing compared to traveling in groups. This trend will rise in the coming days.
How is the NTB engaged in branding of Nepal as a major tourist destination? How has it been facilitating the tourism entrepreneurs?
We have been following our brand slogan 'Naturally Nepal, Once is Not Enough!’ We have been working on this theme which promotes Nepal in terms of natural beauty rather than the manmade magnificence. This year, we will be looking into brand audit and start a new branding exercise to come up with new strategies for tourism promotion.
What is the progress on the NTB’s effort to finalise the unique selling proposition (USPs) of Nepali tourism?
The collection and compilation of suggestions from the stakeholders is ongoing. Upon finalising it, we will enter packaging part of the USPs. We are trying to give different message and value of Nepali tourism. Nowadays, people search for easy travel and environment-friendly destinations that are less crowded. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are among such destinations. We will include such message in the USPs. Likewise, we will be promoting Nepal in terms of its climatic conditions. For instance, the USPs will have messages such as ‘The sun shines for more than 250 days in Nepal’, ‘Trekking Options in Nepal give People Relief from their Stressful Lives’ and ‘Nepal Also Ignites Creativity among the Visitors’ and so on. With all these specifications, the USPs will be ready within the next two months.
Nepali tourism industry still relies on seasonality. How can we reduce the seasonal variation?
We have been putting our efforts to make it run round the year. We ourselves have created the impression that tourists cannot visit certain places in the country in particular seasons. We need to have some specific programmes to change this mindset among the foreigners. In the off season, we are offering attractive packages to the visitors. We have been promoting themes like the ‘Romantic Monsoon Weekends’ and ‘Monsoon Madness’ to attract tourists especially from Indian market. Monsoon in the recent years has become a good tourism product. We are preparing a calendar of themes for different seasons so that we can welcome visitors in all the 12 months.
Tourism entrepreneurs argue that we can bring in more attractive packages of cave, lake and waterfall tourisms in addition to some adventure packages like paragliding, ultra-light flights and bungee jumping that we already have. How does NTB view this proposition?
We have been talking to the entrepreneurs to introduce new products in adventure tourism as creation of such packages and products is the responsibility of the private sector. This has been so till now, and will be so also in the future. Our responsibility is to promote these packages. Cave and waterfall tourisms are good options. Besides that, our festivals are very much under-promoted. Our tourism has been confined to same destinations. Diversifying the areas and exploring new opportunities are important to get optimum benefit from the tourism business.
Visit Nepal Year (VNY) 1998 is regarded as the most comprehensive tourism campaign in Nepal till date. After a considerable gap, came the Nepal Tourism Year (NTY) 2011. Don’t you think we need to continue such campaign on a yearly basis?
We need to organise tourism campaigns in different themes on a regular basis. The more activities we do, the more destinations will be promoted. Apart from VNY 98 and NTY 2011 we have also organised campaigns such as Destination Nepal in 2002-2003 and Visit Pokhara in 2007. But the campaigns were overshadowed by the political instability in those periods. 2011 campaign went relatively well and now we have been running the 'Ghumfir Barsha 2073'(Travel Year 2016-17) which is going very good. The campaign promotes domestic tourism and is aimed at reviving the tourism sector badly affected by the 2015 events of earthquake and blockade. Similarly, the government has already announced 2018 as the Nepal Tourism Year. Also, we have been organising the Europe-focused Visit Nepal-Europe Year- 2017. Europe houses a large Nepali diaspora which can be helpful to promote our tourism in the continent. For instance 80,000 Nepalis reside in the UK at present and most of them own cars. Among them, if 40,000 people keep Visit Nepal-Europe Year 2017 stickers on their vehicles, our country will be visible to many foreigners. Similarly, there are 600-700 restaurants in the UK where we can promote Nepal. We want all Nepalis living abroad to participate in the campaigns in the possible ways they can.
We have already selected ‘Honorary Public Relations Representatives’ across different European cities who can work voluntarily to promote Nepal as a destination. Our aim is to synergize efforts of all to bring positive results. The campaign will have various activities including photo exhibitions, ‘Send a friend to Nepal’ programme, talks on mountaineering along with celebration of Nepal Day, Buddha Jayanti, Everest Day, Familiarization (FAM) trips, among others.
How do you see the recovery in tourist arrival in 2016 and 2017?
The reconstruction of heritage sites is quite slow. However, it’s been a quick recovery for the country’s image as a destination and the number of tourists. 2016 observed 40 per cent increment in the arrival of visitors with the number reaching around 700,000. For the year 2017, we are expecting more.
It is often said that we welcome less number of tourists because we target a low number. Why can’t we target 50 million visitors than just chasing the one million mark?
It is not that our target is less. It is the lack of infrastructure to receive high number of tourists. Our only one international airport is in a dire need of upgradation and improvement in management. It does not run for 24 hours and has around nine aircraft-parking bays only. We don’t have capacity to bring high number of tourists via the air route. If other international airports such as those under construction at Bhairahawa and Pokhara are completed, our air connectivity will improve. Similarly, proper road infrastructure is also required to receive tourists in high numbers via the land routes.
How do you evaluate your one-year period as the CEO of NTB?
When I assumed the post, Nepali tourism sector had become very weak with only around 500,000 visitors coming to the country due to the earthquake and Terai unrest that followed. At that time, we came up with the ‘Year of Survival’ strategy. The announcement of the ‘Ghumfir Barsa- 2073’ was the part of the strategy which is showing impressive results. A large number of Nepalis have been visiting different parts of the nation under this campaign. Likewise, the ‘Nepal Now’ campaign was initiated with the support from foreigners which has sent positive messages about Nepal internationally. We have been using all available resources to help revive the stricken sector. Meanwhile, we have focused the digital marketing aspect for tourism promotion. We used the digital tool to market the weather and festival-based campaigns and promote tourism in the target cities of India that have direct air connectivity with Nepal.
Nepal is getting free branding as travel websites, news portals, reputed magazines and blogs of renowned globetrotters have been ranking Nepal in top positions in terms of travel destinations and hospitality. Why are not we able to capitalise on this?
It is not that we do not capitalise on such rankings. They are major promotions for us. In fact, we have put efforts in many such ratings where Nepal has been placed at the top spots. The CNN’s ranking of the boutique hotels is an example. We have coordinated with the US news channel to list the Nepali hotels. Usually, NTB remains behind the scene in this regard. We also have successfully included Nepal as a separate country in the world’s largest travel guide book- the Lonely Planet. Earlier, it had kept us as part of the South Asia region. Now, lonely planet has listed Nepal among the Best Value Destination in the World.
Domestic and foreign investments in the hotel industry have been increasing considerably. How many hotels do you think is needed? What is the scope for it?
It won’t be otherwise to say that investment in Nepali tourism means investment in hotels. For now, we must concentrate on two things. I have requested many hotel entrepreneurs to do strong lobbying at the government infrastructure agency for proper infrastructure. Since new hotels are being added, it is important to bring more tourists as the number of rooms is likely to exceed the number of visitors a lot ultimately making the market unstable. In such a scenario, there will be a price war between the market players risking the huge investments in hotels. Meanwhile, it is also important for the investors to move beyond the capital valley, and go to Pokhara and Chitwan to offset such an impact. The mid and far western regions of Nepal pose immense investment opportunities to the hoteliers. We have many tourism products there. The locations are also easily accessible for Indian tourists. For example, it is just 350 kms drive from Indian capital New Delhi to Shuklaphanta National Park located at Kanchanpur district. Similarly, it takes only a four-hour drive to reach Bardiya National Park from the Indian city of Lucknow. So, it is necessary for us to open hotels at such places.
What other potential areas do you see for new investment in the tourism sector?
We can identify some bordering towns like Biratnagar, Janakpur, Bhairahawa and Nepalgunj where there aren’t much hospitality facilities. Entrepreneurs can open pubs, bars and shopping destinations. As the Indian state of Bihar is strictly under the prohibition law, an increasing number of people come to Nepali towns and cities bordering India to consume liquor. We can convert that into quality tourism experience for them.
Meanwhile, developing accommodation facilities at hill stations like Daman can be another investment opportunity for entrepreneurs. Many areas of Nepal can be developed into popular destinations of Xtreme sports such as snow skiing, snowboarding, downhill racing, mountain biking, bungee jumping, zip lining, and many more. Likewise, Nepal can have high quality Golf courses. Sports tourism can be highly potential for Nepal. Such tourism will foster if we construct standard stadiums and courses. Nepal can be good destination for MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) activities as it is near to all South Asian capitals and has a good weather. Many of such areas are in dire need of investment.
“We need to devise new natural and cultural tourism products”
KGH is nearing 50 years of operations. What are the major accomplishments for the hotel over these years?
Our whole family has been in the hospitality business. I started KGH with my elder brother Basanta Bahadur Shakya. It was KGH which led all our family members to venture into the hospitality business. The hotel has been providing excellent service since the beginning, satisfying numerous guests over the years. Similarly, KGH has been successful in setting some standards for the Nepali hotel industry with the quality of its services.
Why is KGH so successful?
It was the palace of Kumar Narsingh Rana, the architect who designed Singh Durbar and the first Nepali to graduate in engineering from Japan. It wore out with age and was not conserved. Thinking of preserving its history and glory, we turned it into a hotel by keeping its original structure intact. KGH has been pivotal in the development of Thamel area as a tourist hotspot. We have maintained KGH as such that people can feel an aura and vibe when they go there.
What are the major successes and failures in tourism for us?
Nepal was in the centre stage of tourism in the whole South Asia region 40-45 years back. Indian travel business pioneer Inder Sharma wished that India could learn from Nepal in tourism when he came here in 1974-75.
The bright prospect was dampened by the prolonged political instability over the years. In 1993 we went with a Nepali delegation of Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTA) to Khasa of Tibet to meet the Chinese tourism and hospitality sector delegates. We found out that the hospitality industry in Tibet and many other parts of China was at a preliminary stage. There was no running warm water at the hotel where we were accommodated. They lacked basic services from lodging to fooding. We were far better than them in many aspects. Now look at the same China. It has become a tourism and hospitality powerhouse in the world in less than three decades. We have been left behind largely.
Nonetheless, I am quite optimistic for the future of our tourism and hospitality business. Some large international hotel chains are entering the country and domestic investments in the hospitality and tourism sector has been constantly rising despite various difficulties at present.
How can we regain the lost status?
There are immense possibilities in our tourism sector to explore. If we look at the Nepali tourism products, we are second to none. Various reputed international magazines, web portals and other publications have ranked Nepal among the top 10 destinations over the years.
Similarly, no other country can match the trekking routes of our country. Likewise, the addition of new segments such as adventure tourism which includes activities like mountaineering, canyoning, bungee jumping, ultralight flights and paragliding have increased the potential of our tourism immensely. We have the world’s highest skilled mountaineers in the world. The geography and nature of our country is such that it gives unparallel advantage to us over the others in the world. However, we have not been able to manage the natural and geographical resources.
What new segments can we explore to foster the tourism business?
We can devise new tourism products in the segments of caves, lakes and waterfalls. We have an abundant amount of such places that can be developed as new avenues of tourism. Tourism is a business of dreams. Many Arab countries, for instance, have products for desert tourism attracting a large number of foreigners.
Immediately after the end of VNY 98, I proposed to continue such campaigns regularly in order to keep the momentum garnered by the Nepali tourism. I have urged for the creation of new products as tourism is integrally tied to originality, innovation and freshness. When these factors are absent, the scope for tourism largely diminishes.
After VNY 98, we had planned to organise the Himalayan Sports Year 2001. Nepal is perhaps the most dynamic and attractive destination for extreme sports and adventure tourism. We have lots of rivers, gorges and canyons that are suitable for such activities. We have some of the most suitable geographies and climate for paragliding. The mountains and high hills in the upper areas and the lakes and water sources in lower areas create perfect aerodynamics for paragliding. It is due to the microclimate and aerodynamics that has made Pokhara such an exclusive destination for paraflight experiences. But it is an irony that many such products are introduced by the foreigners. We never focused on such areas.
What other areas do you see for tourism here?
We can have a product of colonial era palaces. Various palaces constructed during the Rana regime can showcase the colonial style and architecture to attract foreigners as well as domestic tourists. Despite never being a colonial power or colonised, Nepal has the largest number of such palaces than any other colonial country in the world. It is an irony that the government authorities are unable to preserve such buildings that showcase the history and were damaged by the 2015 earthquake. I strongly urge the government bodies to renovate the palaces that have been partially damaged and reconstruct the fully damaged or destroyed ones in their original forms rather than replacing them with the modern structures. It is noteworthy to say that some Rana era palaces have been well maintained by entrepreneurs developing them into hospitality facilities.
Likewise, we have a lot of places around the capital valley and other parts of the country where handmade merchandise products are made. We can develop various tourism products and packages focusing on those activities. These types of products can provide worthwhile experiences to the foreigners who have never experienced such activities. We have never understood the value of such activities for tourism. Tourism is ever changing and never ending. We need to have an eagle eye view to observe the history, legacy, boundaries and opportunities of our tourism sector.
Our tourism still relies on seasonality. How can we run it for the whole 12 months?
First, we need to research and create an inventory of the available opportunities. For example, travel and tour packages of Mustang district can be devised for the monsoon season. Many parts of the country are wet during the monsoon, but the Trans Himalayan district is a rain shadow area. Besides that, rainy season itself has the potential for tourism. A trend of celebrating paddy plantation in areas adjacent to some major tourist centres such as the capital valley, Pokhara and Chitwan has started in recent years. Now such activities need to be organised by developing rainy season packages.
Similarly, festive products can be devised since Nepal is a land of non-stop festivities. There are festivals and cultural activities throughout the country for the whole year round. Calendar and booklets of such events should be developed and distributed to all tour operators in the country so that they can make necessary preparations and provide their foreign clients with a whole new tourism experience. It is the responsibility of the MoTCA not the private sector to prepare such calendars and informative booklets. Developing such products and packages require thorough study and research. The ministry should have a research wing to study the viability of expanding tourism into newer areas.
What changes have you observed in Nepali tourism over the years?
We have not been able to add value to the tourism business despite the sector’s growth. The trekking charge per person 40 years ago, for instance, used to be around USD 90 which is now USD 30-35 despite the fact that the costs of all goods and services have sharply gone up over these years. Proper arrangements and management of resources are necessary to add value to any business. The excess of capacity in many areas of tourism has created cut-throat competition among the businesses which is a major contributing factor for the lower rates of services. I suggest the government to regulate the sector to ensure the sustainability of the tourism sector. Similarly, we have not been able to develop and maintain infrastructures necessary for tourism.
What new messages do the branding exercises by NTB and tourism stakeholders need to convey?
Nepali tourism has developed through word of mouth. Many foreigners visiting Nepal spread good words about Nepal. Now we need to brand it in such a way that it should convey the message that Nepal is among the world’s most hospitable countries. Similarly, the existing wildlife tourism can be strengthened. It is not known to many in the world that there are rhinos in Nepal. People across the world generally think that the large body mammals are only found in Africa. We need to brand our country as a combination of Africa and the Alps. We should convey the message that Nepal provides a sense of happiness to foreigners.
We also have a problem while participating at the international tourism conferences and expos. Our teams that participate in such events are often filled with politically affiliated people, bureaucrats and other individuals who have little or no idea about tourism. Renowned mountaineers and adventure sports stars, travel guides and people who have made their mark in their related tourism areas should be made our brand ambassadors.
How can we lure high-class tourists to the country?
There is a common misperception that the backpackers who travel here alone are not high-value tourists. In fact, those who come in groups and stay at the five or four star hotels spend less than the lone travellers. It costs them less while traveling in groups. I view lone travellers as high value tourists. It requires courage, research and zeal to travel alone. Such tourists already study their destinations and make plans accordingly which is generally not done by the group travellers. Many group travellers even don’t know basic things about Nepal. They go and observe the places where they are taken by their guides and obtain a limited knowledge about the country.
Those who come here alone are intellectually high class tourists. While it is important for Nepal to receive high spending foreigners, it is equally imperative for us to have tourists with high intellectual levels. They are more likely to share their experiences about Nepal to other people after returning to their home countries becoming the informal brand ambassador of Nepali tourism. Since they enjoy and indulge themselves in the lives of common Nepalis by spending more time here, they are more likely to return to Nepal.
NTB last month launched the Visit Nepal-Europe 2017 campaign targeting European tourists. What are your suggestions to make the campaign a success?
It is a welcome step. The government needs to actively support such an initiative because many Nepali expats in Europe are participating in the campaign showing their love towards their home country. They have been putting in efforts so that the image of Nepal can be improved and the country can benefit financially. It won’t cost much for the government as the scenario is different from VNY 98. Today many of our stakeholders are in other countries that were not available 19 years back. This makes the promotion of Nepali tourism easier and more effective than before. Likewise, the government's announcement to organise Nepal Tourism Year 2018 is another good step in this regard. The campaign needs to be planned and executed carefully.
You were the National Coordinator of VNY 98. What made the event a big success?
It was the first such attempt. We received immense support from everyone for the campaign. We had a very professional team of four comprising of Prachanda Man Shrestha, Shanker Koirala and Dipendra Purush Dhakal and me as the coordinator. We created a festive like environment for the campaign. We observed an aura even among the general people to celebrate the campaign nationwide. The stickers, pamphlets and promotional items were everywhere. When the stickers ran out from our stocks, people themselves printed and distributed the promotional items. People painted their houses with the VNY 98 theme colours across various parts of the nation. The event formed a triangular relationship between the private sector, government and common people which made VNY 98 the most comprehensive tourism campaign to date.
“Development of key infrastructure is essential to develop the hotel sector”
Nepali hotel industry has been celebrating its golden jubilee. How do you evaluate the overall 50 years of the industry?
Nepali hotel industry has come to this stage after many ups and downs. Starting from eight hotels, this business has taken both quantitative and qualitative leaps. We have been successful in establishing thousands of small and medium hotels to five-star standard hotels.
HAN is celebrating its golden jubilee with the slogan 'Development of Hotel Industries in the Next Decade' as we have realised that the achievement so far by the hotel industry is not enough. That is why we think that we need to move this industry forward in an advanced manner. This year, we are organising promotional campaigns and activities within Nepal and in India. The last five decades have been an important learning period for us. We don't have any option other than to move ahead realising the dimensions of the learning. But, perhaps we did not really accomplish what we needed to in the last 50 years.
The hotels have been affected due to last year's earthquake, economic blockade and political instability in the country which are the main reasons why the hotel business has not been able to run efficiently.
We are celebrating the golden jubilee by focusing on promotional activities. We recently went to China in this connection. We are going to Bangalore and Mumbai this February 8 and 9 to promote our industry. We have also thought about going to other South Asian countries.
How do you compare the situation of Nepali hotel business with other countries? How can we measure the rate of progress?
We have lagged behind the countries that started hotel business later than us. Nevertheless, we are considered excellent for quality and hospitality services in the South Asia region. We have a saying 'Athiti Devo Vawa' (Guests are God). Nepali hotels are providing their services with this motto. But we do not have adequate infrastructures for the development of this sector. The development of hotel industry is integrally tied to the development of other infrastructures. Government needs to work on developing the infrastructures and create a business-friendly environment.
Despite these challenges, we are moving ahead. Many hotels have been added in the recent years and international chain hotels are entering the country. Nepali business houses are also investing in this sector. This scenario indicates a gradual improvement in the hotel sector. At present, we have almost 9,000 quality hotels, 23,000 rooms and more than 35,000 beds altogether. About 4,000 rooms will be added in the next three to four years.
New investments in this sector have been rising. How much investment is entering in this industry?
Although we do not have the exact figure, tens of billions of rupees have been invested in the hotel sector. Hotel industry is among biggest taxpayers. At present, large international hotel chains like Sheraton and Marriott are entering Nepal with huge investments.
There is noticeable increase in the number of four and five-starred hotels. Similarly, the number of small hotels has also been rising tremendously. In tourist hotspots like Thamel, new hotels are being opened with every passing week. Apart from the capital valley, new hotels also being opened in cities like Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Nepalgunj and Surkhet, among others.
We lack promotional activities which is very important to create market for this industry. Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) which is being operated under the public-private-partnership (PPP) modality has not been able to promote the Nepali tourism as much as it needs to do. If we fail to promote the industry, then the investments can be at a huge risk despite the sector’s high potential.
We need programmes to bring more tourists from the existing source countries and explore for new markets. For example, the government staffs of India are mandatorily required to travel abroad once a year. However, the civil administration there has discouraged government officials to visit Nepal as tourists. The number of tourists from India can significantly increase if our government manages the visits of Indian government staffs through related channels. HAN being a major stakeholder in the country’s tourism industry is ready to move ahead in cooperation with the government in this regard.
Investments are done by BFIs. But we need to be aware of the fact that it is the money of general public that are in the banks. Government policy and rules should be efficient in this regard, otherwise, the risk of investment failure can be very high.
What should be the policies in order to develop this sector?
Since the government is the guardian of all sectors. If it does not pay attention to the development of hotel industry, then we cannot expect progress in this sector. Development of infrastructures is the prerequisite for the development of the hotel industry. Inadequate air connectivity and lack of international airports, for instance, has been one of the bottlenecks for the tourism and hotel industry. Just look at the condition of the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), our only one international airport which is also in a very bad shape. Similarly, the national flag carrier does not have adequate number of airplanes.
Look at the progress of Thai Airways which started its flights three days after the planes of our flag carrier took off. We used to reach to the world’s top cities such as London, Frankfurt and Osaka in the past. But now we are running our tourism industry depending on foreign airlines. That is why we are repeatedly pressuring the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation to bring at least three to four new wide -body and another three to four narrow-body aircrafts. There are numerous people across the globe looking to visit Nepal, but we have not been able to bring them in. We need to renovate the TIA and speed up the construction of international airports in Pokhara and Bhairawa. Similarly, development of road infrastructures is equally important to increase the inflow of tourists via the land route.
How can the government extend its support to the hotel industry?
We have been emphasising for a long time that the government needs to give importance to the hotel sector as it has been providing assistance to other industry. The government has not shown positive response in this regard.
Hotels consume highest amount of electricity at present. Nevertheless, we are not getting any subsidy in electricity. The industry also is the largest consumer of agro products and plays a huge role in creating employment opportunities.
2015 was a disastrous year for the hotel industry. How is the occupancy of hotels at present? What can be done to increase it?
The Oct-Nov period is the peak season for us. December is the last month of the season for the industry. Even during the peak season, our occupancy rate was not more than 65 percent, which should have been 100 percent. NTB has declared the year 2073 BS as ‘Ghumfir Barsa’ (Travel Year) to revive tourism sector after a very sluggish year due to the unfortunate events of 2015. We have thought that this would increase the domestic tourism. Nonetheless, the year is about to pass without any progress. I don't think the 'Ghumfir Barsa' that has been announced without any programs will achieve any notable result.
We had only 45 to 50 percent occupancy rate this December. Politics has been very unstable during this period. May be this is why the government did not have the time to look after the tourism sector. Therefore, we are now discussing on how we can improve and achieve progress in the remaining months. We will decide promotional activities nationally and internationally for the purpose.
Nepalis or domestic tourists for long are generally not considered as tourists within the country. Is this mindset still prevailing or has improved?
Previously, we used to call foreigners only as tourists. Nevertheless, the situation has changed. We have 12 chapters of HAN in the country including the capital valley. The hotels outside the capital valley have been sustaining their businesses with domestic tourists. The contribution of domestic tourists is nearly 70 percent outside the valley. In recent years, habit of travelling and spending has been growing among the Nepalis.
There has been a gradual addition of hotels in Nepal. How is the situation of workforce for the industry?
Private and state-operated educational institutions have been producing skilled manpower in the recent years. Nevertheless, we have not been able to sustain them inside the country. This is a major challenge for the hotel industry. It is one of the weaknesses of our government. Youths are going abroad not only from the hospitality sector, but from every other sector. Thus, it is the responsibility of the government to create a favorable environment for the skilled manpower to remain inside the country. Nepali hotel industry has provided employment opportunities to more than 500,000 people. We need skilled manpower for the upcoming hotels as well. But the problem with our industry is that the manpower in this sector has the tendency to go abroad immediately after learning something.