Build it, and they will come

  • Nepal needs to first improve its tourism infrastructure and execute imaginative campaigns to lure tourists
- MOSES MANOHARAN
Build it, and they will come

Dec 16, 2014-

For Nepal to advance and prosper economically, quickly and inclusively, it would do well to focus on its travel and tourism sector. Other crucial sectors of the Nepali economy, such as agriculture and hydropower, suffer from constraints that may be difficult to resolve, even in the medium term.

Existing constraints

Still a predominantly agrarian economy, Nepal must now develop other sectors to ensure growth, employment, and an equitable distribution of gains from the reforms that will have to be put in place by the government under Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. Nearly 70 percent of Nepal’s population of 28 million are employed in the agriculture sector, but their numbers are dwindling because of a host of factors, including urbanisation, poor farming methods, and a shortage of arable land.

A potential pillar of the economy is hydropower, but it has been bound in bureaucratic and other restraints for decades, and must now break free of its shackles, even as it confronts other varied obstacles, including environmental threats, long gestation periods, and a lack of investors for major, capital intensive projects. The dream of tapping into Nepal’s estimated 40GW of hydropower will remain in the short to medium term just that, a dream, even as the country suffers shortages of electricity to drive the engine of growth, or provide comfort to household consumers  in winter and summer.

Added to this is a poor manufacturing base that offers scant employment, forcing significant numbers of workers to seek jobs abroad, mainly in the Middle East. This drain of able-bodied youth to foreign shores can be reversed with construction activity and jobs in the travel and tourism sector and the ancillary industries that will come up to supply myriad needs.

Tourism’s prospects

One crucial factor governing the tourism sector is that it can flourish even while elected legislators struggle to complete the lengthy process of writing a new constitution that will add an irreplaceable element in any platform for investment in practically every other sector of the economy.

Kathmandu, thus looks set to attract major hotel groups, with Pokhara and Chitwan catering to the leisure segment and mountains in the Himalayan range catering to adventure enthusiasts. To be sure, the Hyatt is already an imposing presence in Kathmandu. Other reputable international brands, from the Sheraton to the Marriott, are also entering the country, already served by two venerable home-grown giants, the Soaltee under the formidable leadership of Prabhakar Rana, and the Annapurna, along with the delightfully exotic Dwarika’s. But a tourism boom, presaged by an economic upswing will trigger a surge in demand for rooms, many of them upscale in nature, that scenarios in the short term may not be able to handle.

Just how vital the sector is to Nepal can be seen by the authoritative World Travel and Tourism Council’s latest report, where it confidently forecasts the sector’s contribution to GDP rising from Rs 145.3 billion, or 8.2 percent last year, to Rs 257.4 billion, or 9.9 percent, by 2024. More importantly, for social development, the sector’s contribution to national employment will grow from last year’s 7 percent, or 1,112,000 jobs, to 8.5 percent, or 1,696,000 jobs, by 2024, according to the Council’s forecast.

Much shorter gestation periods and the allure of quick returns will hopefully attract new entrants into the sector from abroad, and ensure a fair spread of development across Nepal. The mix of the spiritual and the recreational—which Nepal offers by being hallowed pilgrimage locations for both Buddhists in Lumbini and Hindus in Pashupatinath, as well as in pursuits of leisure in the scenic mountains and lakes—may well become an unmatched trump card to compete as a favoured international destination, one that is already embellished by the hippie mystique of the 1960s.

Then there are the adventure tourists, for whom Nepal is a veritable paradise graced by the Himalayan mountains, with the world’s highest peak, Everest, among them. The challenge of climbing or trekking in the foothills draws tourists from around the world. The influx of foreign visitors can be further enhanced by business travellers, who will come as the economic environment inevitably begins to show improvement.

Investing in imagination

But as part of its resolve to invigorate this sector, the government may have to speed up improvements to its infrastructure in key areas such as airports, highways connecting tourist destinations, and air linkages, both domestic and international. The very entry into Nepal from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu quickly reveals to a traveller where the government should first concentrate its attention. The nation and its Capital may be well served by a smaller, efficient airport than a larger version, comparable to those in countries with more powerful economies, but change must start at the point where the visitor forms his first and last impressions of the country.

The roads within the cities and their linkages with popular tourist resorts, amenities, and communications connectivity, as well as the smooth functioning of airports, are all expected by the modern traveller. Even the world’s great pilgrimage centres of different faiths have had to meet these expectations from the devout, no longer as self denying or abstemious as in the past.

One other factor can often determine the growth of a sector such as tourism, and this is in the realm of imagination. Examples of this abound in Asia. In Indonesia, a visionary bureaucrat, Joop Ave, oversaw the development of the country, and particularly the island of Bali, into an internationally favoured destination through imaginative foresight and determined execution of tourism strategies that were revolutionary in the last century.

Likewise in India, another civil servant, Amitabh Kant, used vision, modern promotional skills and strategic thinking to develop the South Indian state of Kerala in less than a decade into an object of desire for large numbers of international and domestic tourists. Using nature’s bounty—its languorous backwaters and indigenous natural medicine systems—to attract high value travellers, he helped conceptualise, position, and brand Kerala as ‘God’s Own Country’. Kant later oversaw the national tourism campaign, again masterfully created and promoted, to celebrate the country’s cultural diversity and natural attractions in the ‘Incredible !ndia’ campaign. Both these campaigns serve as templates for the use of imagination and modern mediums of communication to promote tourism.

Does this mean bureaucrats alone can promote tourism? Certainly not. Political will must be the driving force, with the commitment to empower talented individuals within the system and outside to come up with campaigns to capture the imagination of the international traveller. In the age of the internet and the dominance of social media in the global dissemination of ideas, a successful campaign must use these modern tools of communication.

In the 1980s, India’s coming out as an international tourism destination was built on a platform called ‘The Festival of India’, showcasing its arts, crafts, and scenic wonders in the capitals of the West. Since then, Asia has added to this list of tourism’s powerhouses. To compete for tourists from these countries, Nepal must first improve its infrastructure and plan and execute imaginative campaigns to promote its wondrous natural attractions.

Coupled with two assets already present, a peaceful environment and a population imbued with a gentle and friendly disposition, Nepal will eventually figure in the elite list of picture postcard destination for tourists. It is only a matter of time. By its actions, the government can determine how soon.

Manoharan is a veteran journalist, formerly with Reuters, currently Editor-in-Chief of Global Dialogue Review

Published: 17-12-2014 09:24

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