Without COVID-19, tourist guide Fudoma Sherpa would have been busy this time of the year, hiking with tourists and showing them the mountains. But because of the pandemic, she has been unemployed for 20 months, and cannot pay the rent on her city apartment. Now she has moved back to her countryside home to save money.
COVID-19 has severely affected the tourism sector of Nepal. Many workers in the sector have left or are about to. The 20-month freeze has forced trekking guides and workers like Fudoma Sherpa to change jobs. Some are opening farms, some are in road construction and some are thinking about pursuing a career abroad. According to Fudoma, there is almost no help at all for tour guides and other tourism workers from any organizations or the government. And she is certain that there will be an insufficient labour force once the tourism sector picks up again.
The tourism sector used to provide full-time employment for around 450,000 people. Along with another 350,000 in seasonal jobs and others indirectly connected, there were around 1.100,000 people whose livelihood depends on tourism. “Due to a lack of proper organizational data, it is hard to find out the number of the directly affected workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic”, said Chandra Rijal, deputy chairman of the tourism board. The board has found that operators such as hotels, airlines, and tours have not been affected as badly as adventure tourism. Those 270,000 workers who were involved in activities such as trekking, mountaineering, or rafting will need either to tighten their belts or change their line of work. So they are in dire need of help from the government and other stakeholders.
The government has announced Rs. 50 billion (USD 427 Million) in relief funds, after lobbying by the Union of Trekking Travels Rafting Workers Nepal (UNITRAV) and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GFONT). The labour organizations have alleged that this relief fund is more helpful to tourism businesses rather than tourism workers. Suman Parajuli, the chairman of UNITRAV Nepal, said the workers are in a worse situation than that following the devastating 2015 earthquake. Most workers are having a hard time even getting food, which he and his organization have brought to the attention of the government, he said.
“During a good season, these workers help the tourism sector prosper and make a good profit,” he said. “And if they leave for a different line of work, tomorrow the whole tourism sector will face scarcity and the whole nation must face an incommensurable loss. To stop it, in the upcoming budget the government must provide collateral-free loans of Rs. 500,000 (USD 4,276) to each worker. For this, we will keep pressuring the related organizations and government”, said Parajuli.
Dependra Pandey, Chairman of the Tourism Workers Union, thinks an even higher compensation is needed: “It’s not that our union hasn’t been raising its voice for labourers. Last year, we could not get as many relief packages for workers as we had hoped. For the next budget, we will propose that the government establishes a relief fund of Rs. 10 billion (USD 85 million) and a maximum of Rs. 1.5 million (USD 12,900) of collateral-free loans at an interest rate of 2 percent per annum for five years based on their previous salary and tax payments,” he said.
“50 million rupees have been deposited in the name of the labour welfare fund. Though we wanted to distribute the money to especially affected workers, due to a lack of information, it’s been pretty hard to determine whom to distribute it to,” added Tourism Board deputy chairman Chandra Rijal.
Though the tourism sector contributes 8 percent to the total economy of Nepal, very little effort has been made to support and revive it during the pandemic, and such that have been made have not been effective. Tourism advisors and analysts have exchanged ideas on how to boost internal tourism to sustain the sector.
“In 2019 alone, 1.3 million Nepalese travelled overseas for vacation,” said Rijal. “That shows the number of Nepalese tourists willing to travel.”
“We can arrange travel for almost 2.5 million internal tourists within the country. To promote internal tourism, the Ministry of Tourism has forwarded a concept to establish two days off per week (currently there is only one day off per week). It may not recover all the losses from international visitors but at least it would help the tourism sector stay afloat.”
Analysts have estimated that people will be attracted to religious, cultural, and natural tourism in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. The tourism sector of Nepal can take advantage of such a scenario. Once the pandemic comes under control, Nepal should target and prioritize tourists from neighbouring countries. Many religious Indian tourists, for instance, visit Nepal. So, after the COVID situation, the country could benefit more by shifting to regional tourism. In 2019, Indian and Chinese tourists made up the majority of travellers to Nepal, according to Rijal.
Nepal was struggling to make the most of its huge tourism potential even before COVID-19. When the pandemic recedes, several innovations will be necessary to revive the sector, and to put it on a stronger footing going forward:
Looking at the situation right now, it is uncertain when this pandemic will be over. The longer it takes to bring it under control, the longer will be the recovery period of the tourism sector. So there is no choice for all the stakeholders and government other than to join hands in order to keep the tourism sector alive and breathing.
Rupa Ghimire is a senior news correspondent of Janata Television in Nepal. She is also a member of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ). She holds a master's degree in mass communication and journalism from Polygon College, Babarmahal, Kathmandu, Nepal.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.
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