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Nepal set to welcome back Chinese travelers, but tourism recovery could be a long haul

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Nepal set to welcome back Chinese travelers, but tourism recovery could be a long haul

Home to the world’s tallest mountain and the birthplace of Buddha, Nepal is betting on a rebound from one of the worst phases in its tourism history after China reopened its borders and travel demand began picking up in Southeast Asia. But Beijing threw Nepal for a loop when it did not name the South Asian country in a select list of nations with which it will resume outbound group tours from February 6.

“My industry [has] got a very encouraging response from Chinese tour operators,” Dhananjay Regmi, CEO of Nepal Tourism Board told This Week in Asia. “But if Nepal is not on a priority list [for China], then there might be a lot of cancellations.” Nepal’s quandary shows that any travel rebound to pre-Covid numbers could prove difficult despite China’s reopening and global tourism picking up. Chinese travellers accounted for about 15 per cent of visitors to Nepal in 2019 before Beijing imposed strict restrictions following its zero-Covid policy.

Earlier this month, China said it would initially allow outbound group tours to 20 nations – including Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Beijing’s abrupt U-turn amid a Covid wave has provoked mixed reactions, with more than a dozen countries including Canada, the United States, Japan and South Korea imposing either a negative Covid test requirement or testing upon arrival for travellers from China. Others such as Thailand have welcomed the return of a batch of Chinese tourists with flower garlands.

Nepal says it has been preparing to receive more tourists from China for several months. It offers a visa on arrival to travellers and only needs a vaccination
certificate. Chinese funds contributed to the construction of two recently opened international airports in Nepal – Pokhara and Lumbini. Chinese investors also have stakes in around 400 hotels and restaurants.

Nepalese airline Himalaya Air began weekly flights between Kathmandu and Beijing on January 17, and is planning to launch flights to other Chinese cities such as Guiyang, Changsha, Shenzhen and Chongqing.

That is still a far cry from the dozens of flights per week between the two countries before the Pandemic. Tourist numbers to Nepal hit a high in the October-November period, largely driven by Indian travellers who came over for key festivals such as Dussehra and Diwali, after restrictions were eased in September.

India and China have historically contributed the most tourists to Nepal, but only about 7,000 Chinese visitors came last year because of Beijing’s travel curbs, while there have been around 500 arrivals so far this year.

Regmi said the numbers could easily hit thousands over the next few months if travel between the countries resumed in earnest. The nation expects to receive 1.2 million air travellers – around the same as 2019 – this year, though the crash of a Yeti Airlines plane on January 15 moments before landing in Pokhara has affected optimism for a quick rebound in tourism.

The accident has reinforced the need for Nepal – plagued by treacherous terrain, poor oversight and volatile weather that make it challenging for aviation – to revamp its safety systems, according to Suman Pandey, former chairman of Pacific Asia Travel association’s Nepal Chapter.

“There is fear among passengers flying to Pokhara, but it will subside in the next few weeks. We will do everything to ensure the safety of passengers,” he said. The Himalayan nation has slashed airline costs by around 20 per cent by pruning taxes, and keeping landing and parking charges low at the two new airports to attract new carriers and visitors.

Tourism experts say destination nations betting on an influx of Chinese visitors will need to be patient.

Wolfgang Georg Arlt, CEO of China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, said at a travel webinar on Tuesday that the number of Chinese visitors would rebound to 2019 levels only by next year.

About 110 million Chinese are expected to head overseas this year, compared to 170 million in 2019. Arlt predicted that two-thirds of that tally would come only in the second half of the year.

Chinese tourists are also expected to favour destinations closer to home and zero in on places perceived to be more friendly in the next few months, experts say. Offbeat locations, nature and health would also be among considerations in their travel plans The tourism industry may also have to target more “silver-haired” tourists who have the money and time to indulge in luxury travel. Around 10 per cent of
China’s shrinking population can afford such travel, experts say.

The good news is that Chinese tourist numbers across the Asia-Pacific are likely to rebound sharply by 2025 and surpass pre-pandemic records, Haiyan Song, a professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told the webinar on Tuesday.

On Friday, Fitch Ratings said China’s move away from restrictive policies increased the likelihood of a swift recovery for tourism sectors in the Asia-Pacific region that had relied on outbound Chinese travellers.

It however noted that the economies still face “several other constraints and risks” to their government ratings. Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and Malaysia will probably benefit most from the trend, the credit rating agency added.

“With China coming back, all the pieces are now back in the Asia-Pacific travel and tourism industry,” said Gary Bowerman, co-author of China Outbound Tourism Handbook 2023.

—– report in South China Morning Post, January 27, 2023