Nepal tour operators fear grim times

Nepal tourist operators on Wednesday forecast grim times ahead for the already ailing sector following the end of a Maoist guerrilla ceasefire in the scenic Himalayan kingdom.

A wave of blasts took place after the end on Monday to a four-month truce called by rebels fighting to overthrow the monarchy. The six blasts on Monday and Tuesday were minor and caused no casualties.

“It’s going to be a very difficult time for tourism. The end to the ceasefire is bad news for us all,” trekking company owner Sagar Pandey said.

“Clashes are bound to take place which will definitely keep away visitors,” said Pandey, who set up his firm in 1998.

Government data on Tuesday showed the number of foreigners arriving by air in Nepal, famed for its snowcapped peaks and ancient Hindu temples, dropped by 4% last year to 277 129.

Tourist numbers have been falling as the 10-year-old revolt has intensified and affected the capital, Kathmandu.
Tourism suffered a further blow in 2005 when King Gyanendra seized power in February, plunging Nepal into more turmoil.

Narendra Bajracharya, president of the Hotel Association of Nepal, feared the end of the ceasefire would mean hard times for the hotel industry.

“During the ceasefire the hotel occupancy rate was between 60% and 65%. Now it will come down again to 20% to 25%,” he said.

Maoist leader Prachanda called off the truce, blaming the refusal of the army to match the ceasefire. He said the rebels would resume hostilities against government forces but not target civilians.

The top tourism official said the country is safe for visitors as long as they do not stray off the beaten path.

“In major tourist destinations, with registered travel agents, tourists won’t have any problems,” Tek Bahadur Dangi, chief executive of the Nepal Tourism Board, said. “Despite the problems in Nepal, tourists are safe.”

More than 12 000 people have died in the insurgency, but tourists have never been targeted by the rebels except for requests for “donations”. But a number of Western governments advise against travel to the country.

What began as a trickle of hippie tourists in the 1960s turned into a major money-spinner for the aid-dependent nation sandwiched between China and India.

Last year, tourists brought $180-million into Nepal, government figures show. The sector employs about 300 000 people and supports about three million people indirectly, according to hotel association chief Bajracharya.—AFP

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