COVID-19: Nepal and its Tourist Industry in Crisis
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
by Kathryn Rickard, client and travel addict
Nepal closed its borders and brought in a strict lockdown early in the pandemic, cautious of its weak healthcare system and infrastructure, keeping its infection rate very low. But at the beginning of June, as the border restrictions and lockdown were eased, many of its migrant workforce started to return, particularly from India where Coronavirus infections are much higher, starting an upward trend in infections rates in Nepal.
While the death count is still very low - less than 30 people recorded - possibly due to the young age profile of the positive cases, it is clear that testing is still a problem, focussing on the quarantine centres set up for returning migrant Nepalis, and with limited testing capability and access and guidance from the goverment restricting testing subject to specific symptoms, it is likely the real numbers are much higher. The quarantine centres themselves are cause of much distress, being poorly funded and managed and potentially exacerbating the problem of infections rather than reducing it. Like many developing countries the government is struggling to cope with the virus effectively and there are protests regarding its response.
As in many countries the lockdown and travel restrictions are causing huge economic hardship to the country, its businesses and the Nepali people. With over 25% or its GDP coming from overseas remittances by an estimated 3.5 million Nepali migrant workers, it is is highly dependent on this income stream which is now limited by foreign lockdown restrictions and travel restrictions, with many unemployed and unable to return suffering hardships in countries . With the 'Visit Nepal 2020' campaign the goverment planned to boost the other major contributer to foreign income, its vital tourism industry contributing 8% of GDP, aiming to double visitor numbers to 2 million per year. This campaign was postponed at the beginning of March and as the borders closed to foreign visitors and trekking and mountaineering permits suspended, its was clear that toursim would be completely closed down at least for the Spring season, with disasterous consequences for the over 1 million Nepali jobs depending on the tourism industry.
For the thousands of qualified Nepali mountain guides, porters, hotel and tea house owners and many others dependent on the tourism industry, the trekking season is short and intense bringing them their annual income in a couple of months in each of spring and autumn seasons - without bookings agencies cannot pay their guides. There is no government support for businesses or individuals now unemployed. While in normal years guides and porters make a very basic living, it is now a desperate situation, where the basics of feeding their families and providing medical care is a huge challenge.
Speaking to Ramesh he tells me this is the reality of the pandemic for trekking agencies like Hairy Yak Adventures - it is devastating. Sadly the government and various tourism organisations have been unable to help as yet. The uncertainty is a major stress - not knowing how long it will be until coronavirus is under control and how long it will take for tourism to recover. After the long recovery from the effects of the 2015 earthquake it is a hard blow to his industry and livelihood.
It is unclear how the situation will develop in Nepal and how well the pandemic will be held at bay until a vaccine is available. For travellers like myself, locked down in the comfort of home in the UK, we anxiously look at the news reports from around the world watching how it is affecting the countries we love to visit and hope to return to soon. I am sure we are all wishing and hoping that Nepal will come through this without suffering as many of the tragic losses seen in more developed countries. And when we can safely visit again I will be the first to book my ticket and be back to explore the wonders of this beautiful country and hopefully to help support its vital tourism industry - I'm already planning!
Some photos to tempt you to do the same!
To finish on a lighter note ... one of the few positives of the pandemic is the effect on pollution in Kathmandu. With restrictions on vehicle movements the air has cleared to reveal views of the distant mountains not seen for years as these images from the Nepali Times shows:
If you are keen to travel when restrictions are lifted why not start planning your next trek now ! https://www.hairyyakadventures.com/treks