‘It is high time to develop tourism as a national industry’

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

Mishra started his tourism career as a tour executive in 1977. Fast forward to today, he is the executive chairman of Temple Tiger Group of Companies, which operates an array of tourism-centric companies. He also served as an executive member of the Nepal Tourism Board right after its initiation and was chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Nepal Chapter from 1992 to 1996. He was elected secretary and treasurer of PATA in 2014, the highest position a Nepali national bagged since Nepal joined PATA in 1975.

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

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

Before we get to why our tourism industry failed to develop as it should have, it’s important to understand the sector’s history in Nepal. It was in 1955 when Nepal hosted its first ever organized tour group. For the next few decades, our country was the region’s leader in tourism. For example, Nepal was the first country to start wildlife tourism in Asia. The who’s who of entertainment, politics, and conservation came to stay at the lodges inside Chitwan National Park. Nepal was known as the ‘Africa of Asia’. Our white water rivers brought water sports enthusiasts from across the globe.

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

But despite being blessed with everything, our policymakers never took the industry seriously and failed to make policies that would have helped the industry grow. The best thing the government has done for the tourism industry was its non-interference. But it could have done so much more to help the industry grow leaps and bounds.

Whatever the industry has achieved today is all because of the efforts of those from the private sector. But tourism is an industry that can never thrive in isolation.

What do you think are the key areas that Nepal needs to focus on to let tourism flourish?

For a landlocked country like ours, airline connectivity is very important for the tourism sector to grow. The European Commission’s ban on Nepali airlines from operating in Europe has hurt the tourism industry immensely. The government and its bodies related to this have to ensure that this matter gets resolved as soon as possible.

For decades, the country’s lack of infrastructure development has hindered the sector, but in the last few years, things have started moving in the right direction. But there’s a lot that still needs to be done.

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

Lastly, it is imperative for government stakeholders and their private counterparts to work in tandem to formulated plans and policies that will help the industry flourish. Because of the crucial role 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 inside Chitwan National Park. How has tourism around the park changed over the years?

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

Apart from attracting ultra-high-end guests, the lodges, which were strategically placed inside the park, also played a crucial role in wildlife conservation and curbing poaching activities.

In 2012, when lodges inside the park ceased operations, some opened properties on the periphery of the park. But those ultra-high-end guests felt the wildlife experience was no longer the same and simply stopped coming to Nepal. This has been a big loss for Nepal. If the government allows a select number of lodges to resume operations, we will still be able to attract those ultra-high-end clients.

How has the presence of luxury resorts abutting the Chitwan National Park shaped the park’s tourism goals?

These new luxury resorts around the national park are catering to a completely different type of tourists. The main focus of these resorts is centered around offering guests a luxurious experience. Wildlife is just one of the many activities they offer.

But what we can learn from the growth of luxurious resorts in the periphery 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, they wouldn’t impact the business of the luxury resorts because the two have completely different clientele. I think that these two segments can complement one another and grow together.

At a time when there’s a growing demand to move towards sustainable tourism, how well-positioned do you think Nepal is for this shift?

Tourists today are very well-informed and extremely conscious about the environmental impact of their vacations. If you look at the data from the last few years, you will witness a growing demand for nature-based tourism products, and given the sheer geographical and ecological variety we are blessed with, there’s something for every type of tourist in this country. With a little over a million tourists a year, we are among countries with negligible tourist arrivals, so there are so many places in this country that are still unexplored and underexplored.

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

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

The pandemic has made us realize the importance of domestic tourism, which has flourished in this pandemic-gripped world. In fact, in the first two years of the pandemic, it was domestic tourism that helped keep the industry stay afloat. There is a need for the private sector to position itself to cater to this emerging market. The government can also play a role in this by encouraging its employees to travel within the country. This alone will help about 60 percent of the tourism industry break even.

Despite the many challenges that Nepal’s tourism industry has had to face in the last three decades, it has proven to be very resilient, and this should make us optimistic. We should stay positive and determined and take the industry forward.

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