Tourists find strife-torn Nepal is not so tranquil
KATHMANDU, Apr 18: Coming to Nepal for a trek under the shadows of snow-capped Himalayan peaks or to visit ancient temples might not be as tranquil an experience as it may seem, tourists to the kingdom found this week.
For years, mounting political strife in the country has been consciously kept well clear of foreign visitors because it had nothing to do with them and, more importantly, no one wanted to disrupt the inflow of tourist dollars to the impoverished nation.
Maoist rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the monarchy for a decade, a campaign that has killed 13,000 people, have made it clear that they will not target tourists. No tourist has been killed.
And a pro-democracy movement to remove King Gyanendra from absolute power has raged for months with many tourists scarcely aware.
But on two days this week, there has been tear gas, burning tyres and cane charges in the Thamel tourist quarter of the capital Kathmandu as activists gathered to protest against the royalist government.
Curio shops, bars and restaurants have been shut for large parts of the day, but they have been quick to reopen once the trouble passed.
One foreign woman received minor injuries. But yesterday evening, groups of tourists could be seen huddled in alleys outside backpacker hotels, wondering what to do next.
Travel has been curtailed because of a continuing strike launched on April 6 and food supplies in shops are running short.
''It's terrible, we can't go trekking, we are stuck here,'' said Lino Ben Ari, an Israeli woman from the town of Betach Tikva, who was sitting outside a shuttered shop with others. ''I am missing out on something.
''We will take a decision on whether to leave in a couple of days, but if all had been well, we would have stayed for a month,'' she said.
This is bad news for Nepal, which relies on tourism, aid and remittances from citizens overseas for foreign exchange.
Tourist arrivals have fallen from a peak of about half a million in 1999 to 297,000 in 2003 and 277,000 last year. Many fear this year could be worse.
''Business people are suffering with cancellations and the fall in the number of tourists,'' said Man Mohan Singh Chhetri, deputy general manager of Asian Trekking, an agency in Thamel.
As he spoke, his secretary received calls from two trekking groups cancelling their reservations.
But what keeps businesses like his afloat are mountaineering expeditions, which are planned years in advance and are not easily cancelled. Nepal is home to eight of the world's 10 tallest peaks, including Mount Everest.
But even here, numbers are dwindling. There were 101 expeditions to the mountains in spring last year, and only 65 this year.
And trekkers, who can easily postpone their trips, are doing so in large numbers, those in the industry say.
Thamel, which is usually crowded, has mostly deserted bars and restaurants, and shops selling hiking equipment lie empty.
There were several empty tables one evening this week at the famed mountaineers' hangout, the Rum Doodle Bar, where anyone who has conquered Everest gets a free meal.
''Business is terrible,'' said Kumar Sharma, one of the managers.
''We are down 40 percent from last year.'' Still, many hope the industry will receive a fillip in mid-May when Indian school holidays begin. Indian families visit Nepal in droves, for the shopping, sightseeing and casinos.
Chhetri, of the trekking agency, blamed sensationalist reporting for the situation.
''The media makes it seem like landing in Kathmandu is like landing in Iraq,'' he said.