Nepal Celebrates World Tourism Day and Looks Ahead to 2011

Passengers on the first flight to arrive in Kathmandu Monday were met by officials and a panchakanya, five girls dressed in traditional outfits who put silk scarves and garlands of marigolds around the visitors’ necks, as Nepal’s tourism bureau and travel industry celebrated World Tourism Day.

The passengers were then taken in procession into the city, where many hotels were offering 50-percent rates for the day. The tourist neighborhood of Thamel was closed to vehicles Monday afternoon, and a street festival with music and food stalls replaced the normal traffic.

This is the 30th World Tourism Day, sponsored by the UN World Tourism Organization. This year’s theme, celebrating diversity, rings true in Nepal, which has both natural wonders and cultural and historic attractions. But what also rings true in Nepal is the sound of tourist dollars hitting the cash registers.

To that end, 2011 has been declared Nepal Tourism Year. The last such promotion, Visit Nepal Year 1998, produced a record number of visitors to the country, almost 200,000. This year there will be more than 500,000 arrivals, despite the tourism crash after 9/11 and the continuing recession around the world.

Travel to Nepal is booming, and the tourism board has a very ambitions target for 2011: one million visitors. That is unlikely, but tourism entrepreneurs don’t mind. “Better to aim high than low,” one trekking operator said.

The campaign’s other goals are a mix of marketing – promote the Nepal “brand” and improve sustainability – and practical steps. The goal with the biggest long-term payoff potential is to improve and extend the country’s infrastructure.

Nepal’s road system is small: The Himalayas are a difficult place to build. It’s estimated that only about a quarter of the population is directly served by a road and that more than half of Nepalis live more than a day’s walk from the nearest road. Improving the road network will help tourists, it will help villages throughout the country, and it will open up new tourist destinations.

The other sort of infrastructural improvement the tourism board and entrepreneurs will have in mind is improved governance. Seating a stable government and completing the peace process and constitution drafting are essentials to promote investment in the tourist sector, and everywhere else in the economy.

All parties have promised one concession to the tourism board: that they will not call general strikes during the year. No one here believes that for a minute, but the public promises may reduce the number of events.

The 1998 tourism campaign was criticized at the time for having lofty goals but not doing much to achieve them. The 2011 campaign has already taken some of the same sort of complaints. But it is certain that the long-term results of 1998 are partly responsible for the growth in tourism since then. One million visitors or not, if Nepal Tourism Year 2011 has the same sort of effect, everyone in the tourism business will be happy.