“It is high time to develop tourism as a national industry”

Over a career spanning four and a half decades, Basant Raj Mishra witnessed the ups and downs of the tourism industry in Nepal. From the golden period of the tourism industry that lasted until the 90s to the periodic lull the sector witnessed at the height of the Maoist insurgency, the 2015 earthquakes and then the Covid pandemic -19, Mishra has seen it all.

Mishra began his career in tourism as a tour manager in 1977. Fast forward to today, he is the executive chairman of Temple Tiger Group of Companies, which operates a range of tourism-focused businesses. He was also an executive member of the Nepal Tourism Board right after its establishment and served as the President of the Nepal Chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) from 1992 to 1996. He was elected Secretary and Treasurer of PATA in 2014, the highest post a Nepalese National pocketed since Nepal joined the PATA in 1975.

In this interview with the Post Tsering Ngodup Lama, Mishra spoke about the key areas the country needs to focus on to advance its tourism sector; why Nepal is perfectly positioned to take the lead in sustainable tourism/ecotourism, and how Nepal was once Asia’s pioneer in wildlife tourism. Excerpts:

You say the country needs to take the tourism industry seriously. Why do you think we failed to do this?

Before explaining why our tourism industry has failed to develop as it should have, it is important to understand the history of the sector in Nepal. It was in 1955 when Nepal hosted its very first organized group. Over the following decades, our country was the tourism leader in the region. For example, Nepal was the first country to launch wildlife tourism in Asia. The who’s who of entertainment, politics and conservation have come to stay at the lodges in Chitwan National Park. Nepal was known as “the Africa of Asia”. Our whitewater rivers have attracted water sports enthusiasts from all over the world.

For a small country, we have such a diverse geography and ecology. And the best part has always been the proximity from region to region. For example, in less than half an hour you can fly from the plains of the country to the base of Mount Everest.

But despite being blessed with everything, our policy makers never took the industry seriously and failed to come up with policies that would have helped the industry grow. The best thing the government has done for the tourism industry is non-interference. But he could have done so much more to help the industry move forward in leaps and bounds.

Everything the industry has achieved today is thanks to the efforts of those in the private sector. But tourism is an industry that can never thrive in isolation.

What do you think are the key areas Nepal needs to focus on to enable tourism to thrive?

For a landlocked country like ours, air connectivity is very important for the growth of the tourism sector. The ban imposed by the European Commission on Nepalese airlines operating in Europe has greatly damaged the tourism industry. The government and its relevant bodies must ensure that this matter is resolved as soon as possible.

For decades, the country’s lack of infrastructure development has hampered the sector, but in recent years things have started to move in the right direction. But there is still a lot to do.

We need to rethink our marketing strategy. Marketing Nepal in the same traditional way will no longer suffice. Search-based marketing should be our focus and it will help us reach our target audience.

Finally, it is imperative that government stakeholders and their private counterparts work in tandem to formulate plans and policies that will help the industry thrive. Due to the crucial role that tourism plays and can play in contributing to the country’s GDP, it is high time for the country to develop tourism as a national industry.

You have dedicated several decades of your life to wildlife tourism. Until 2012, you operated one of the seven lodges in Chitwan National Park. How has tourism around the park changed over the years?

The lodges inside the Chitwan National Park have helped make Nepal a top wildlife destination. Temple Tiger Jungle Lodge, which we used to operate inside the park, charged between $150 and $300 plus tax per person per night. Some lodges charged even more. Even though the lodges inside the park were all very basic, guests still paid a premium due to the exclusive experience of staying inside Chitwan National Park and being so close to the wildlife in their natural habitat.

In addition to attracting ultra-high-end guests, the lodges, which were strategically placed inside the park, also played a crucial role in wildlife conservation and the fight against poaching activities.

In 2012, when the lodges inside the park went out of business, some opened properties on the outskirts of the park. But these ultra-high-end customers felt that the wildlife experience was no longer the same and simply stopped coming to Nepal. It is a great loss for Nepal. If the government allows a number of lodges to resume operations, we will still be able to attract these ultra-high-end customers.

How has the presence of luxury resorts adjoining Chitwan National Park shaped the tourism goals of the park?

These new luxury resorts around the national park cater to a completely different type of tourist. The main objective of these resorts is to provide guests with a luxurious experience. Wildlife is just one of the many activities they offer.

But what we can learn from the growth of luxury resorts on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park is that there is a market for guests who like their wildlife experience wrapped in luxury. And even if the lodges inside the park were to reopen, it would not impact the business of the luxury resorts as the two have a completely different clientele. I think these two segments can complement each other and grow together.

At a time when there is a growing demand to move towards sustainable tourism, how well placed do you think Nepal is for this change?

Today’s tourists are very well informed and extremely aware of the environmental impact of their holidays. If you look at the data from the past few years, you will see a growing demand for nature-based tourism products, and given the geographic and ecological diversity we enjoy, there is something for every type of tourist in this country. With just over a million tourists a year, we are among the countries with negligible tourist arrivals, so there are so many places in this country that are still unexplored and under-explored.

Apart from this, many new tourist destinations/products are being developed in Nepal, which gives us a unique advantage to design these products considering sustainable practices and at the same time ensuring space for all segments of industry – from high-end to low-end – to grow.

What do you think has been the biggest lesson for the industry from the pandemic?

The pandemic has made us realize the importance of domestic tourism, which has flourished in this pandemic-ridden world. In fact, during the first two years of the pandemic, it was domestic tourism that helped keep the industry afloat. The private sector needs to position itself to respond to this emerging market. The government can also play a role in this respect by encouraging its employees to move within the country. This alone will help around 60% of the tourism industry break even.

Despite the many challenges Nepal’s tourism industry has faced over the past three decades, it has proven to be very resilient, which should make us optimistic. We need to stay positive and determined and move the industry forward.

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