A Nepali woman arranges garlands made of globe amaranth flowers ahead of the upcoming Tihar fetival in Gundu village on the outskirts of Kathmandu on Nov. 4. (Photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP)
It’s that time of the year when tourism reaches its full throttle in the Himalayan territory of Nepal. But this year it is a different story.
From the capital Kathmandu to Chitwan and up to the Everest region, foreign tourists usually flood in for sightseeing, trekking and climbing — adventure activities which Nepal offers in an endless number of ways.
Battered by Covid-19, tourism in Nepal has dried up this year. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the tourism industry, the nation’s largest foreign exchange earner and its largest employer.
The much-touted “Visit Nepal Year 2020,” which planned to host 2 million foreign visitors, has become a no-show.
The economic wreckage is very much visible. Hotels and teahouses dotted on the sides of mountains have closed shutters. Restaurants, gear shops and popular watering holes in the capital Kathmandu wear a deserted look. Many of them had for decades served as a beacon for backpackers but are now closed and face a bleak future.
Last year tourism earned more than US$2 billion for one of Asia’s poorest nations.
Restrictions were eased last month for foreigners visiting the country after seven months of closed borders, giving new hope for the tourism industry that employs an estimated 800,000 people in the country of 30 million.
For now, the reopening is limited to those seeking to climb or trek its famous peaks.
“We are not opening the country for all visitors and only mountaineers and trekkers who have taken prior permits will be allowed to come to Nepal,” Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of Nepal’s department of tourism, told Associated Press on Oct 3.
“We are opening to a sector of visitors who we know we can handle and manage.”
Nepal is home to eight of the 14 highest mountains in the world, including the tallest, Mount Everest.
Visitors have to undergo a coronavirus test before heading up the mountains. Local guides, porters, cooks and helpers will also be required to take coronavirus tests and prove that they hail from areas with no infections for the previous two weeks, according to AP.
The government has made mandatory a seven-day quarantine for all foreigners visiting the country along with $5,000 Covid-19 insurance.
The spread of coronavirus is a major concern. Positive cases have been spiraling out of control in recent weeks, with daily new infections of more than 2,500, the bulk of them centered around Kathmandu. Nepal has reported more than 176,500 infections with 984 deaths.
As hospitals are running out of beds, the authorities have directed patients with less than life-threatening symptoms to remain home in isolation.
Health workers say wealthy and influential people have hijacked hospital beds, leaving the poor with nowhere to go.
Health experts say many of Nepal’s infections are traced to Nepali workers traveling back from India, which occupies the second slot in the world for reported Covid-19 infections — around 8 million, right behind the United States.
Nepal acts as India’s junior partner. Its economy and strategic affairs are linked to what happens in its huge neighbor to the south. However, tourism helped Nepal’s economy grow faster than India’s, at nearly 6 percent, in 2019.
People in the mountain regions have been hit hard by the setback to Nepal’s alpine tourism industry. Normally, they make enough money to last them all year by working the spring and fall seasons. Countless sherpas and experienced mountain guides have lost their jobs.
A fall in remittances from Nepalis working abroad has become another reason to look for tourists’ income.
In the good times, millions working in the Persian Gulf countries in mundane jobs such as security guards and maids send money home. Many of them have been shown the door.
Total remittances were nearly $9 billion from overseas workers last year. The Himalayan nation, where the average income is the equivalent of $3 a day, banks on remittances more than just about any other country.
With the Hindu festival season in full swing, health experts have warned that the Covid-19 crisis may get worse in Nepal in the coming days.
“Even though Nepal is open for international tourists, the situation is not conducive enough for travellers to come here,” said Ashok Pokharel, president of Nepal Association of Tour Operators, according to an Oct. 31 report in the Himalayan Times newspaper.
The government decision to allow foreign tourists may not yield much-needed succor to the cash-strapped Nepalese economy in the short term.