Nepal tourism hit hard as global coronavirus fears close Everest
The tiny airport at Lukla, perched on the edge of a mountain high in Nepal’s Himalayas, usually echoes with the roar of propeller planes flying a constant stream of adventure-seekers into the small town, known as the gateway to Mount Everest.
During the peak spring tourist season, tens of thousands of trekkers and mountaineers arrive to test themselves on the popular trek to Everest base camp, and perhaps go on to climb the world’s highest peak.
But these days all is quiet in Lukla.
The decision by the Nepal government last week to cancel all trekking and climbing permits and end on-arrival visas for visitors in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has brought the flow of tourists to an abrupt halt.
“Things are looking bad. We used to get up to 60 flights a day in the peak season and twice as many helicopters. Now we are hardly receiving 10 to 12 planes,” said airport chief Emanath Adhikari.
Trekking and climbing are a vital source of revenue for one of the poorest countries in Asia. Almost 1.2 million tourists visited Nepal in 2018, bringing in more than £570m.
More than a million jobs are generated by tourism in Nepal, according to the World Tourism and Travel Council.
The government’s announcement has been backed by leading figures in Nepal’s tourism industry. Mingma Sherpa, director of Seven Summit Treks, one of Nepal’s most successful expedition companies, said: “No doubt our business will suffer but who will be responsible if the virus spreads on the mountain? The mountain is not moving anywhere. People can come and climb next year.”
But for those who make a living along the major trekking routes – porters, guides and guesthouse owners – the decision has come as a devastating blow.
“The coronavirus has turned everything upside down,” said Lhakpa Tshiring Sherpa, who runs the Hiker’s Inn in Lukla. “Everyone is suffering, but for hoteliers it’s been a double hit. We stockpile everything in advance as it is very costly to buy and transport foodstuffs during the peak season. It’s cost me a fortune. What do I do with it now?”
In January, the government launched its Visit Nepal 2020 campaign, hoping to attract two million visitors, but that too has been suspended.
The campaign had raised expectations that this would be a lucrative year for business, said Suman Rai, a porter in the town. “We were hoping that there would be plenty of work for everybody but the coronavirus has shattered everything. There is hardly any work at the moment except some menia
l labour,” he said.
The crisis has hit the capital, Kathmandu, too. In the tourist district of Thamel, streets lined with cafes and trekking shops are usually crowded with tourists, but hotel owner Mahesh Manandhar said he has so few guests he may have to lay off staff. “We’d usually be full at this time of year, but now we’re only at 15% capacity. The rest of the season is almost certainly ruined,” he said.
he decision to cancel all climbing expeditions is just the latest in a series of setbacks for Nepal’s mountaineering industry. Climbing on Everest was effectively called off following an avalanche in 2014 and then the 2015 earthquake. Last year, the government was widely criticised for failing to manage the huge numbers of climbers on the peak, which some claimed contributed to the deaths of 11 mountaineers.
Nepal has had just one confirmed case of coronavirus, but Basu Dev Pandey, director of the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease hospital in Kathmandu, warned the country was at risk due its location between China and India.
With so many businesses dependent on tourism, the knock-on effect is “tremendous”, said Raj Gyawali, director of Social Tours. “But Nepal’s capacity to deal with the crisis is very low, so I think what the government is doing is probably going to be seen in a positive light in the end. Time will tell.” source the Guardian