Guests trickle again, however climbing mecca Nepal seeks extra

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KATHMANDU (Reuters) rising import bills was decimated.

As part of broader plans to attract more tourists to the home of eight of the world’s 14 highest peaks, authorities are promoting bungee jumping, paragliding and skydiving in addition to traditional trekking and rock climbing, said Taranath Adhikari, director-general of the Ministry of Tourism.

“We’re adding new tourism infrastructure and investment in hotels is increasing (too),” he told Reuters in the capital, Kathmandu.

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The country has also urged its envoys to boost tourism, pledged to relax visa requirements and urged China to allow more people to visit despite COVID restrictions.

Because of the pandemic, Nepal halted climbing and trekking in early 2020, and Adhikari called the speed at which visitor numbers picked up again “inspiring”.

In the first quarter of 2022, foreign arrivals more than doubled year-on-year to nearly 79,000, and he expects the recovery to continue in the coming months.

But the numbers remain less than half of pre-pandemic levels, making the economy more vulnerable to shocks at a time when prices for imports like crude oil, cooking oil and coal have been skyrocketing.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government imposed a total import ban on some luxury goods, including cars, until mid-July amid dwindling foreign exchange reserves and mounting debt.

Irrespective of this, the hoteliers are ready to ensure the hoped-for revival of tourism.

Binayak Shah of the Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) said the country can now accommodate up to 2.5 million visitors, more than double the 2019’s 1.2 million.

While tourism is Nepal’s most famous industry, it is far from its largest source of revenue, accounting for about 5% of foreign exchange reserves, compared to about 60% from remittances home by Nepalese working abroad.

They also declined during the pandemic as many expatriates were forced to return home, leaving many of the 29 million citizens in trouble.

In mountainous areas that rely heavily on tourism, nearly 80% lost their income during the pandemic and trekking ban, and some 3,500 tourism-related businesses have been shut down in the Kathmandu Thames area alone, according to industry estimates.

Though tourists are trickling back, nagging concerns remain.

Neighboring countries India and China are attracting more visitors than anywhere else, and both countries are taking measures to prevent another wave of COVID cases.

Nepal, with a $36 billion economy, has recorded fewer than 50 COVID-19 cases and zero deaths in more than a month. To date, 66.8% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

“I’m fully vaccinated…Nepal is a safe place,” Swiss tourist Katharine Loosli, 65, told Reuters in the usually teeming Thames streets.

She has been coming to Nepal regularly since 1998, preparing for a trek to Pun Hill near the world’s 10th highest peak, Mount Annapurna.

The Ukraine conflict has also deterred tourists from there and Russia, while airfares and other costs are rising.

Despite the headwind, some restaurateurs and hoteliers are looking forward to better times.

Agni Dhakal, 47, who has run a souvenir shop in Thamel for 30 years, said most people in the industry feel the worst is behind them. “It looks like the black era of tourism in Nepal is over.”

(This story corrects names of people and places in the last paragraph.)

($1 = 122.4200 Nepalese rupees)

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Edited by Mike Collett-White and John Stonestreet

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