KATHMANDU — With Nepal no longer in the grip of civil war and removed from travel warning lists, officials believe the impoverished Himalayan nation is set to benefit from a much-needed surge in tourists.
Former rebel Maoists, elected to power earlier this year, have said they will work to boost the lucrative sector — particularly in the little-visited poverty-stricken rural areas where they draw their biggest support.
Bringing in 230 million dollars last year — four percent of the country’s GDP — tourism delivers vital foreign currency and generates jobs for Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.
“The industry is ripe for expansion,” Maoist tourism minister Hisila Yami told AFP.
“We are focusing on rural tourism as we think this could bring an immediate impact to areas that have never seen tourists.”
The new government has set its sights on welcoming one million visitors annually by 2011, almost double the number of tourists in 2007.
The early signs are positive, despite the global financial crisis.
Seventy percent of hotels have experienced good advance bookings, said Madhav Om Shrestha, director of the Hotel Association of Nepal.
Meanwhile, October saw more than 50,000 tourist arrivals, the highest monthly total since 2000, according to official figures.
Nepal’s tourism board believes the country will escape the worst of the financial fallout.
“Most of our tourists are backpackers, trekkers and high altitude climbers and the economic crisis should not deter these kinds of people,” said Sarad Pradhan, a Nepal Tourism Board spokesman.
After democratic elections brought the Maoists to power in April, countries such as the United States, Britain and Japan downgraded the security risk assessment they provide for tourists.
Nepal has a huge amount to offer visitors, from jungles in the south teeming with wildlife to the world’s highest mountains on the northern border.
Trekkers and mountaineers can also now visit the centre and far west of Nepal — once the heartland of the Maoists who battled security services to a standstill during a decade of civil war that ended two years ago.
“In the mid and far west, the mountains are all now open for exploring. We have totally waived mountaineering royalties to encourage people to visit,” said minister Yami.
With the spectacular Himalayas as a backdrop, the region has stunning lakes set amid rolling hills that in spring are carpeted with wild flowers.
The post-monsoon autumn season in October and November offers clear weather and breathtaking views for the trekkers who form the backbone of the tourism industry.
Tourism officials have also cut the cost of climbing Mount Everest with summit permits halved to 5,000 dollars in the autumn, although prices in the busy spring season remain unchanged.
“The tariff reductions and waivers have had a significant impact,” said Gyanendra Shrestha, an official from the government mountaineering department.
“In 2007 we had a total of 84 expeditions in our mountains, and this year we have already had 147 and we expect the number to rise by the end of the year,” said Shrestha.
Back in Kathmandu and its frenetic tourism hub, Thamel, business owners are upbeat for the first time in years.
“We now have peace,” said Phanindra Pandey, owner of a cafe specialising in organic produce in the area that bustles with backpackers, street kids and trekking touts.
“It has been a good year since the spring season, and I think the autumn season will make this year the best ever for tourism in Nepal.”