By Usha Wagle Gautam
Yogesh Bhattarai is a prominent politician of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), and sitting Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. Bhattarai replaced Rabindra Adhikari, who died, along with six other people, in a helicopter crash in March.
Community caught up with Bhattarai to talk about the ambitious ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ initiative that aims to bring in two million tourists next year among other tourism related issues.
What are the immediate plans that the Nepali government is undertaking to lure tourists for the ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ initiative?
We have taken two things simultaneously: one, developing and upgrading infrastructures and another, mobilising stakeholders and marketing the ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ campaign. The immediate plans include completing and operating the Gautam Buddha International Airport; upgrading Tribhuvan International Airport into boutique airport with enhanced facilities, operating the national flag carrier, Nepal Airlines, to various international destinations; completing the reconstruction of remaining monuments destroyed by 2015 earthquake; enhancing and packaging tourism products and activities across the nation; and marketing and promotion of ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ campaign internationally.
It has been reported in the media that Nepal is constructing international airports in different regions of the country. What are those big infrastructures?
Yes. One of the biggest shortcomings in Nepal in terms of tourism potential is the lack of the state-of-the-art and big international airports. Constructing them has been our priority for quite some time. The existing Tribhuvan International Airport is not sufficient to cater to the growing international air traffic into Nepal and it is also hard-pressed to absorb the pressure of a growing number of tourists. We are, therefore, constructing new international airports namely, Gautam Buddha International Airport, Pokhara International Airport, and Neejgadh International Airport. In addition, we are upgrading other domestic airports for bigger capacity and better services.
In Nepal, there are several problems with transportation. If you construct an airport outside the valley, how can tourists be transported to different cities, including Pokhara and Kathmandu in the absence of expressways?
I understand there are some limitations in road transportation in Nepal due to our geographical landscape. Over the last decade, we have improved our roads and modes of transportation remarkably. City roads have also been widened, new roads have been built and existing roads have been upgraded though they are not sufficient. The nation is well connected by highways. We have four parallel east-west highways and nine north-south highways. We are constructing expressways and tunnel ways to connect Kathmandu, Pokhara and Lumbini with several other locations. I do not think there will be any difficulties for the tourists to commute to the Kathmandu Valley and other destinations from the airports built outside the valley as there will be sufficient improvements in the existing road conditions in terms of safety and comfort.
Are you satisfied with the hospitality industry? How can the government help upgrade the facilities?
Nepal is doing pretty good in the hospitality sector. I would call it fully satisfactory. Many star hotels with reputed international chains are providing international standard services, and many hotels are coming up soon. The hospitality sector has, in recent times, been one the most fertile areas of foreign investment and we are encouraging them, too. The private sector has also shown interest in building hotels, resorts and guesthouses in many tourist areas. We are also promoting homestay services run by local communities. We are aware of the required quality services and therefore, put in place a stringent monitoring mechanism. The government is promoting investment in hospitality taking into account the growing number of tourists. As of now, we are capable of providing world class hospitality to our valued guests.
Are plans afoot to improve the climbing experience of adventure tourists in Nepal?
We have to look into this issue from a wider perspective. First of all, the so-called traffic jam in Everest is caused not due to mismanagement but because the climbers at high altitude are waiting for right time with perfect weather conditions as the weather at high altitudes changes quite abruptly. When the climbers at the highest camp are waiting and weather clears up, all of them have to move upward making the trail look like a train of people locked up in a jam. It is not unnatural in expeditions to Everest, the world’s highest peak. However, we are aware of inconvenience and safety concerns of the climbers. We have formulated policies to rule out any problems and are enforcing them. In this connection, a taskforce formed by the government has recently submitted its report. We also welcome suggestions of concerned people, stakeholders and well-wishers from home as well as abroad so as to improve any lapse to ensure that mountaineering expeditions in Nepal are safe and pleasant.
Talking about manpower that can cater to the demands of the tourists, does Nepal have enough manpower to cater for foreign tourists?
Right now, even though there is a qualified human resource in Nepal, yet we are experiencing a crunch. A number of tourism schools and colleges are preparing a decent human resource. It is now necessary to employ them beyond few concentrated tourism areas. In order to develop a skilled human resource and attract students from across the world, we are setting up a Deemed Tourism University, in addition, to tourism institutions for short and long courses for which we are completing necessary legal provisions. Since this is a dynamic sector, it should be always up-to-date with new human resource.
What, in your opinion, are the activities and sightseeing foreign tourists can do in Nepal which is different or rare in other countries?
It would not be hyperbole to suggest that Nepal is a heaven for tourism products and activities. Our country is unrivalled in adventure activities like mountaineering, trekking, rafting, paragliding and mountain flight, to name a few. Being the birthplace of Lord Buddha, Nepal has been a pilgrimage destination for all Buddhists around the world. Similarly Hindu temples and shrines have been major attractions for a large number of followers. Nepal is also known for its diversity — diversity in religion, ethnicity, geography, flora and fauna, culture, food and festivals. One can experience subzero degree within half an hour’s flight from 40 degree. In 15 minute’s flight from the capital, one can go into the deep jungle where one can experience jungle safari, canoeing, see rare Royal Bengal Tigers, one horned rhinos and herds of elephants and many wild lives. One can visit Unesco-designated heritage monuments which lie within a radius of 20 kilometres. All these things are quite rare in other parts of the world.
Many architectural monuments, which were crucial for tourism, were destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. How many have been rehabilitated/renovated?
Architectural monuments are historically, archeologically, religiously and culturally important to Nepalese as well as tourists. Some of them were destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. Most of the damaged monuments, save for a few, have already been reconstructed. The remaining reconstruction work will also be completed soon. I want to take this opportunity to express our gratitude on behalf of Government of Nepal and on my own to the international community, development partners and well-wishers for their support and cooperation in reconstruction work.
How is Nepal teaming with international stakeholders to make ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ successful?
There are many stakeholders in Nepal’s tourism industry and development works. We have been working with diplomatic communities, development partners, international media and tour operators, and Nepal’s diplomatic missions abroad, Nepali Diasporas to promote ‘Visit Nepal 2020’. We are planning to work with international airlines, tourism organisations and various agencies and institutions to make this campaign a grand success. We are planning to launch the campaign in our embassies on the same day in the first week of 2020.
There are a large number of potential tourists in Qatar and the Arab world. Do you have any message for them on why they should visit Nepal in 2020?
The Arab world and Qatar are our potential markets. We have very good air connectivity. A large number of Nepalese live and work in the Arab world through whom we are especially connected to Arabs. The 4-5 hour journey with frequent flights from the Gulf to Nepal is very convenient. We have so much to offer the Arab tourists like lush green forests, lakes and rivers, frequent and big rainfalls, and cool climate. We have plenty of “halal” certified hotels and restaurants in Nepal. Because around 5% Nepalese are Muslims and a large number of Muslim tourists visit Nepal every year, we are quite aware of their food choices and other facilities. There are mosques to pray in and other world class facilities available in Nepal as per the need of our visitors. I invite all Qatari travelers to come to Nepal and savour the experiences of a lifetime!
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