TravelWeekly.co.uk 
Picture: Stone

Between royal massacres and Maoist rebellions, Nepal has
been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late.

But figures just released for last year show that UK visitor
arrivals were up 10% to 21,202. In fact, Nepal has been achieving
steady, double-digit growth in arrivals since 2002, the year when
King Birendra and most of the royal family were murdered in a
palace shoot-out.

However, these figures mask the truth. In a country where tourism
is the third-largest source of foreign currency, the Nepali tourism
market has been massively underperforming for several years. Back
in 1998 visitor numbers, excluding India, topped 500,000.

Since those heady days, the Maoist rebellion, which began in the
early 1990s, has intensified, killing some 11,000 Nepalis to date.
Then in February of this year, King Gyanendra, who succeeded his
murdered brother, deployed troops and assumed direct control of the
country. The King has promised to restore democracy and
‘stabilise’ the country.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice rates the threat of
terrorism in Nepal as high. It warns against travel by road outside
the Kathmandu valley, and advises trekkers to travel with a
reputable operator and to stick to the main routes.

Nepali Minister of Information and Communication Tanka Dhakal
accepts tourism is suffering but lays part of the blame on
misinformation carried in foreign media. He also wishes Britain,
along with other countries, would issue more specific travel
advice. “The real advice is crystal clear,” said
Dhakal. “Yes, there is a problem with terrorism and
disturbances in some remote areas, but there’s no trouble and
complete freedom of movement in the main tourist areas. All proper
measures have been taken to ensure the safety of tourists and no
single tourist has been harmed in 11 years of the
insurgency.”

On the streets of the capital, Kathmandu, as well as in provincial
towns such as Pokhara, the Nepalese army maintains a high profile
with sandbags, barbed wire and armed soldiers. Hotels and other
tourist businesses are clearly suffering.

However, at the same time many UK visitors do continue to travel to
Nepal and enjoy trouble-free holidays.

“Our business to Nepal has probably fallen by 50% in the past
two years,” admitted TransIndus director Amrit Singh.
“But at the same time all of our clients have been enjoying
safe, wonderful holidays. International and domestic flights have
not been affected and the hotels have maintained their services and
standards. There’s a growing range of good-value
accommodation as well as upmarket options such as the Hyatt and
Radisson in Kathmandu, and the Shangri-La in Pokhara.”

However, Singh said the Nepali Tourist Board needs to do more.
“It doesn’t have an office in the UK. Nepal needs to
look at what Sri Lanka is doing – welcoming journalists,
opening doors, reducing rates.”

Exodus Travel marketing manager Crispin Jones said:
“We’re continuing to run between 15 and 20 itineraries
in Nepal, in accordance with FCO advice. We’re constantly
monitoring the situation and could react quickly if the need arose.
This year has been our best for several years in terms of sales and
general interest in Nepal.”

Jones said almost all the travellers Exodus takes to Nepal go on a
trek, whether it’s to Everest base camp or something more
gentle. Exodus believes trekking in Nepal has plenty of potential.

“At the same time, everybody comes into Kathmandu and most
will spend a few days there, or in Pokhara, getting used to the
altitude before setting off on a trek, so there’s potential
there too,” said Jones.

According to Explore Worldwide product manager John Telfer sales to
Nepal have been significantly down over the past three to four
years. However, bookings for this winter, the high season in Nepal,
are looking strong. Trekking accounts for 80% of its business and
the average stay is two weeks.

“By and large the situation is stable enough to operate
— the safety of our groups is of paramount importance —
and we have contingency plans in place as necessary,” said
Telfer.

“Assuming the political situation remains stable, there will
be significant pent-up demand for Nepal. We would then expand our
selection of treks in both the Annapurna and Everest areas.”