Visitors to Nepal can still enjoy the country's unique cultural and religious highlights, such as meeting the holy sadhus in Kathmandu. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Many of the hiking trails in Nepal's famous mountain ranges were not affected by the April 25 earthquake. // © 2015 Peregrine Adventures
The destruction caused by the April 25 earthquake that struck Nepal has been well documented. More than 8,000 people lost their lives, many survivors are homeless and important heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed. But a number of key players in the tourism industry are trying to look beyond the tragedy.
“Prior to arriving in Nepal, I was anticipating seeing more areas of devastation,” said Andrew Jones, guardian for Sanctuary Resorts and vice chairman of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA). “Although I know that there are communities in dire need of support and a great number of organizations engaged in relief efforts, I found that there is also a large area of Nepal untouched by the recent earthquake.”
Jones had been to Nepal three times before his recent visit at the end of May.
“I hate to use the term ‘business as usual,’ because I think that would be wrong, but for me, there was no problem flying in from Hong Kong, no problem getting baggage at the airport and no problem getting from Kathmandu to Pokhara or driving around the city,” he said.
According to Sarad Pradhan, media consultant for the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), the majority of Nepal’s 75 districts were not highly affected by the earthquake; nearly 90 percent of hotels in Kathmandu are safe; there is no scarcity of food and water; and all forms of communication are in working order. He also said that all highway and subways were not affected by the quake, except the one that leads to the Tibetan border of Kodari.
“The Tribhuvan International Airport is operating as before, and many destinations within Nepal, such as Pokhara, Chitwan, Annapurna, Lumbini and Bardia, as well as the east, west, midwest and far-west regions of Nepal, have not been affected by the earthquake,” Pradhan said. “Agents don’t need to worry when they send clients here.”
Jones, who has been working with Nepal’s Tourism Recovery Committee (TRC) under the director general of the Department of Tourism and the administrative chief of NTB, believes Nepal will be ready to see tourists in the fall.
“In speaking with the government, tourism practitioners and other related stakeholders, it was felt that as things stand at the moment, the goal of having tourists return by September is realistic,” Jones said.
Pradhan said Nepal is not closed for tourists now either, but that the NTB is currently focused on building traveler confidence. This means a media campaign; sales and promotion programs in neighboring India and China; implementing the tourism recovery plan with PATA; and receiving celebrity endorsements about traveling to Nepal. National travel advisories cautioning against visiting Nepal are the biggest hurdle for the recovery of the country’s tourism, which accounts directly and indirectly for up to 8 percent of the country’s GDP and is the major livelihood of some areas of Nepal.
“A lot of work has to be done,” said Shannon Stowell, president of Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). “Nepal has to assure these foreign offices that travel is safe enough for their citizens.”
According to Stowell, it’s too soon to say when Nepal will be ready for tourists. Some ATTA members have reported that monsoon season, a slow time for tourism that typically lasts from June to September, could further change the situation with the possibility of landslides. And due to advisories against Nepal travel, some companies will not insure visits to the country. Due to these concerns, ATTA has not announced a date for its AdventureWeek Rebound Nepal, a weeklong fam trip that will bring media and industry experts to Nepal.
“With the monsoons, this is likely to be a difficult time for Nepal, and I would advise agents to continue to monitor recovery efforts before encouraging travel in the near future,” said Sally Grimes-Chesak, director of marketing and family programs for Journeys International.
But Jones thinks this is giving the monsoon season too much weight.
“If, during last year’s monsoon, there was a rock slide, everyone would have said, ‘that’s life,’” Jones said. “Some of the things that are happening now have been going on for centuries, but suddenly it becomes part of the earthquake situation. It’s unreasonable.”
Most major tour operators to the area seem to agree.
“Select tours will resume at the end of June to areas that have experienced minimal damage,” said Michelle Hudema, senior manager of strategic operations for G Adventures. “We’re still assessing the situation on the ground in areas that experienced greater damage and hope to make a full return to Nepal in July.”
The majority of operators are focusing on the fall season with the understanding that independent safety assessments will be completed well before tourists return.
“Obviously, there is no way we would send a single traveler to Nepal until we are satisfied that it is safe,” said Nicholas Cowie, Intrepid Group’s general manager of operations for Nepal, who is based in Kathmandu. “Tourists will directly improve the future of people here, but there is no point promoting Nepal if it’s not safe.”
Intrepid is working closely with local authorities and organizations to undertake a certified engineering assessment and report of the Everest and Annapurna trekking regions. The assessment will likely take place June 24 and be led by Miyamoto International, an engineering firm known for work following earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand. If needed, Intrepid will also look into conducting a post-monsoon report.
“We are trying to preempt speculative information and work from factual evidence,” Cowie said. “Anecdotally, there’s been damage in Everest, but we need a factual report to prove it. If there’s remedial action that needs to take place, we will provide that for the public.”
That means changing up itineraries as needed, including going back to tent camping, the traditional way to explore Nepal. Currently, Intrepid’s Nepal trips in the fall offer the highlights (including teahouse stays), believing it’s too soon to make changes. Regardless of itinerary, the tourism experience will be different.
“The reality is there have been some UNESCO sites that have been badly damaged,” Cowie said. “One of the suggestions I’ve heard is that Nepal should keep some of the sites as they are — let Kathmandu be an open-air museum of what a large earthquake looks like when it mixes with ancient landforms.”
Intrepid Group’s major operator to Nepal is Intrepid Travel, which will donate 100 percent of profits from its 2015-2016 season of Nepal trips to local and international charities. The company is currently researching the best way to help these organizations.
According to Jones, Nepal’s government has not been in favor of voluntourism in the past, but tour operators such as Ace the Himalaya, Crooked Trails and Journeys International have already begun to promote volunteer opportunities for rebuilding in Nepal.
“The biggest change to our itineraries is that we will offer travelers the opportunity to participate in relief work,” Grimes-Chesak said.
Part of Tourism Cares’ one-to-two year commitment to help Nepal “build back better” is to ensure that the oncoming burst of volunteer travel to Nepal is as responsible and impactful as possible. The organization will work with local experts to help tourism to underappreciated communities and ensure that its benefits reach as many as possible.
“We think highly ethical volunteer travel can play an important role in Nepal’s recovery, especially when run by tour operators with prior volunteer project experience,” said Mike Rea, CEO of Tourism Cares. “While a few questions remain and there is much to learn, we believe there is huge potential for identifying effective projects and helping them really scale up, engaging hundreds and even thousands of global travelers who now care more than ever for Nepal.”
This speaks to the profile of the first wave of return tourists. According to Stowell, only the most hardy travelers — who are prepared to pitch in a hand or already have a deep knowledge of Nepal, so they know what they’re getting into — should visit right now.
“In the long term, Nepal tourism will prosper, but it may take a year for services to return to standards of pre-quake reliability,” Grimes-Chesak said.
Those involved in the relief effort are even seeing this as a chance to build a more sustainable and equitable tourism future.
“Nepal had severe governance and economic development challenges before the earthquake, and there is some hope that a window for real positive change has opened up,” Rea said. “And that applies to tourism, too.”