Nepal: Unkind aftershock

31 Oct 2015 by Marisa Cannon
“The worst victim of the earthquakes has been our economy, which remains shattered. Although our airports, infrastructure and hotels were not destroyed, Nepal has seen a drastic decline in arrivals. Tourism to our country has yet to recover from its sickened status.” These were the words of DB Limbu, president of the Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents, at the 20th NATTA Convention held in September in Kathmandu. While official figures for 2015 have yet to be announced, the earthquake on April 25 of 7.8 magnitude, and a major aftershock on May 12 measuring 7.3, have cost the country an estimated US$600 million in tourist revenue. Home to the world’s highest peak and a scope of famous mountain ranges, Nepal sits on the border of two enormous tectonic plates, and is no stranger to natural disasters. A recent tide of floods, avalanches and earthquakes has kept Nepal bobbing precariously on the edge of ruin, and the images in April of devastation across Kathmandu’s tourist hotspots have done little to improve matters, spooking a majority of operators into a blanket blacklisting. Sarbottam Shrestha runs tour agency Peace International, and works with groups coming from the US, Europe and Asia. “Our business has nosedived, so we are making concerted efforts to attract visitors now. Kathmandu and Pokhara are fine now, but the media images from six months ago still remain in the consumers’ mind, and they don’t feel safe coming. We have lost more than 50 per cent of our business.” Founder of NGO Portal Bikes, Caleb Spear lives and works in Kathmandu. The organisation supplies local businesses with cargo bikes and, in the wake of the earthquake, temporary shelters. “I do think that the media overemphasised the severity of the earthquakes in Kathmandu,” he says. “A lot of the areas that were destroyed were rural settlements that follow local means of agricultural production, doing very simple subsistence farming. People are still surviving in very simple accommodations, but it certainly wasn’t every building everywhere that was destroyed, and much of the integral infrastructure, such as the airport, escaped damage.” Nepal has only one international airport, Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, but this is no indication of its efficiency: delays are rare and passage is managed swiftly through immigration with visas available for foreigners on arrival. Plans for a second international airport have long been in the works, with more urgency since an incident in March this year, when a Turkish Airlines aircraft skidded off the runway after attempting to land in dense fog, causing the airport to close for four days. Infrastructure is basic, but roads – however lacking in tarmac – are open and traffic flows smoothly according to laws known only, it seems, by local motorists. Nevertheless, the system works, and pedestrians, Vespas and taxis co-exist in chaotic harmony. Within short driving distance of Kathmandu are the royal cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, which have a rich collection of gilded temples and palaces, ornate pagodas and shrines of their own in addition to those in the capital. Every city has its own Durbar Square, the name given to the remnants of the old kingdoms of Nepal before the country’s unification, each of which contains a cluster of elaborate palaces built between the 10th and 13th centuries. After the first earthquake, it was images of the Unesco-protected Durbar squares in Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu that caused tourism to grind to a halt, says Limbu. “The images were very distressing,” he says. “But they weren’t an accurate indication of the damage to the country as a whole, and this put many people off.” The director-general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, issued a statement later declaring that there had been “extensive and irreversible damage” to the world heritage sites, and that the three complexes had been “almost fully destroyed”. Today, much of the rubble has been cleared, but before and after photos paint a tragic picture of one of Nepal’s most prominent cultural attractions. While the destruction to these sites has been severe, Limbu was right about the earthquake’s relative impact on Nepal: only 14 of Nepal’s 75 districts were severely affected by the earthquake, according to the World Health Organisation. HOTELS PICK UP  Kathmandu has a large mid-range hotel market, attracting a number of backpackers travelling through central and South Asia. There are a handful of five-star hotels to choose from, including the historic Hotel Yak & Yeti, the Radisson Kathmandu and the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, a favourite with airlines hosting visiting crews. Boasting modern facilities and extensive grounds, the Hyatt has suffered less than other hotels in the aftermath, and continues to attract many business events from groups overseas. “We host groups from as far away as Canada, and our main markets in China and India choose us because we offer a very competitive MICE venue,” says Annal Kumar Pradhan, a public relations executive at the Hyatt Regency. “Luxury hotels of course have been affected less because we have the facilities to accommodate big events. Although we saw a drop of around 80 per cent after the earthquake, business is picking up and we are now at 75 per cent occupancy.” Trekking is what Nepal is known for, and Kathmandu serves in large part as a gateway for tourists who go on to popular walking routes in Mustang, Langtang and the Gokyo valley. After the capital, Pokhara is the largest city in Nepal and can be reached by air in 25 minutes via a range of domestic carriers including Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air. On a clear day, visitors can hope for a view of the snow-capped Annapurna mountain range, which utterly dwarfs the city below. Parasailing and ultralights are popular with tourists for a birds-eye view of Pokhara – on any given day the sky is strewn with twirling gliders and winged tricycles flying above the city’s hills. Pokhara’s main attraction is of course the Annapurna Circuit, but those who prefer less active pursuits to the “entry-level” 206km route can enjoy activities such as boating on Fewa and Rara Lake’s placid waters, photo opportunities at Devi’s Fall waterfall or a visit to the Gurkha Memorial Museum. With breathtaking views over the Himalayas, groups of up to 100 can book the museum’s rooftop. There is no hire charge – you just cover the cost of a catering agent who puts up tents and provides cooked food. Across four floors, the museum charts a detailed history of the Gurkha regiments from their foundation under the British Army in 1815 to their status today as one of the world’s most revered fighting forces. While the museum is a touch makeshift, the walls display coherent explanations of the rise of the Gurkhas, accompanied by cabinets of memorabilia used during both world wars and the British occupation of territories such as Malaysia, Cyprus and the Falklands. CHINA INVESTMENT Nepal’s most frequently used ground link is the 174km Prithvi Highway, which connects Kathmandu with Pokhara. Funded by the Chinese government in the 1960s, the highway carves a vertiginous path through the mountainside alongside the Trisuli River, which originates in Tibet and is considered by locals to be holy. The river has long attracted tourists for white water rafting, offering a number of spots along the way that provide a bumpy but awe-inspiring jaunt downriver. China’s tradition of investment in Nepal continues today, with hydropower at the fore: in 2012, state-owned power company China Three Gorges International committed US$1.6 billion to a 750-megawatt hydropower project in West Seti, which will be one of the largest power projects in Nepal. Construction is expected to begin this year, and finish in 2019. China is also investing in Nepalese road networks such as the 115km Araniko Highway, which links Kathmandu to the Chinese border near the town of Kodari, and has already built Highway 318, its longest national highway at 5,476km long, which runs from Shanghai to Lhasa. RHINOS AND TIGERS A fork in the Prithvi Highway leads away from Pokhara and towards  Chitwan National Park, home to one of the last populations of the single-horned Asiatic rhino and a refuge of the Bengal tiger. Established in 1973, Chitwan covers 93,200 hectares of lush lowland in the southern Terai region. Here, ecotourism is making a name for itself with a cluster of resorts recently taking off. Lake Twenty Thousand is one of them – a small, family-run resort that sales director Tara Ratna Sthapit tells me is popular among yoga enthusiasts and those seeking space to meditate. “Incentive planners looking for a wellness element often choose us, and we can accommodate small corporate bookings. We get a lot of keen birdwatchers, too, because we are right next to the national park,” he says. Surrounded by rice paddies and situated on an organic farm that supplies fresh milk and eggs daily, the hotel is a cut-out of the rough and ready Terai region, ideal for travellers looking for a down-to-earth getaway from the city. Driving through Chitwan, there is no obvious entry point to the park: trundling along dirt tracks and paths buried in viscous mud, the jungle is all encompassing. Wildlife lovers can take heart in the knowledge that spotting a rhino can be a common event, as long as you get to the reserve before daybreak. The best way to explore the park is on the back of an elephant, and tours are led by local mahouts (elephant riders), who deftly guide the elephants through the wild flora and across rushing brooks. Wedged into a cosy howdah (the seat used for riding an elephant or camel), be prepared for a jerky ride, but there is nothing quite like observing the canopy and its sprawling landscape from such a height and at the leisurely pace afforded by an elephant. Sadly, we saw no rhinos or tigers that morning, probably because it was past 8am by the time we started, but sightings of egrets, sambar deer and a few monkeys made the trip more than worthwhile. KATHMANDU QUIET Back from the tranquility of lush greenery and wide open plains, Kathmandu life is still less frenetic than in many Asian capitals: a day spent walking around Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker quarter, is unexpectedly peaceful. Still, the quiet is a little unsettling – I had expected this area to be packed with tourists. In the shops, vendors are that much keener to secure a sale, be it a US$100 Himalayan tapestry or a US$2 key ring. In a local beauty parlour I ask for a henna tattoo, which runs up my left forearm – a souvenir that will last just over a week. The girl administering the ink is sweet and her English excellent; she tells me that I’m her first customer in a few days now. Though Nepal is safe, open for business and home to outstanding natural wonders, it seems the effects of the earthquake continue to metastasise, crippling the economy from within.
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