Tourists Flood Back to Peaceful Nepal

KATMANDU ~ Impoverished Nepal’s crucial tourism sector is reaping a major peace dividend, with officials reporting a surge in arrivals of nearly 45 percent in the wake of an agreement by Maoist rebels to end a decade of insurgency.

Although tourism officials said the figure meant the country was now back on the international tourist map, industry representatives said the sector was still suffering from lingering damage to the country’s travel infrastructure.

“The last five months have shown encouraging signs of growth in the tourism sector,” said Aditya Baral, a spokesman for the Himalayan nation’s tourism board.

He said there was 43.4 percent year-on-year growth in foreign visitors arriving by air between January and May, with the trend expected to improve, giving solid year-end figures.

Annual foreign tourist arrivals to Nepal – an essential stop on the famed “hippie trail” and a paradise for trekkers – peaked at nearly 500,000 in 1999, but dipped to 283,000 by last year when the country’s civil war reached a climax.

The situation has since improved, with the Maoists signing up for peace in November 2006, entering the political mainstream and vowing to abandon an armed struggle that left an estimated 13,000 dead.

“International tour operators have now put Nepal back on their destination list,” Baral said.

Bhim Prasad Khanal, a trekking agency owner, said adventure tourists were also coming back.

“Nearly all countries have removed travel warnings and the current political stability has meant that we have had a busy spring season, with the Annapurna range and Everest base camp being the most popular treks,” he said.

The spring climbing season also saw an increase in expeditions to peaks including Mount Everest. The permits required for some of the world’s highest peaks, sometimes running into tens of thousands of dollars, are a key source of hard currency for Nepal.

In all, tourism provides up to four percent of landlocked Nepal’s gross domestic product and directly employs around 300,000 people.

But Prakash Shrestha, the president of the Hotel Association of Nepal, said the upsurge in visitors had highlighted the damage done by a decade of conflict and lack of investment.

“We are concerned about the lack of infrastructure for tourists because many hotels had closed down due to lack of business,” Shrestha said.

“At the moment, there is a very limited number of seats on aircraft flying into Nepal and the government needs to strengthen the national air carrier (Nepal Airlines) and allow more flights in,” he added.

Nepal was opened to outsiders in the early 1950s, and the first large numbers of visitors were hippies looking for cheap drugs and enlightenment on the overland route from Istanbul to Katmandu in the 1960s.

The country has two tourist seasons annually – one in spring, which ends around June with the onset of the monsoon, and another that begins in October, the prime season for trekking amid majestic Himalayan peaks.

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