On March 12, a day after the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 crisis a pandemic, the Nepal government made the decision to stop issuing on-arrival visas for tourists. At the time, there were only two confirmed cases, and as new infections began to emerge, the country went into a complete lockdown on March 24, which lasted for four months.
Nine months after suspending tourist visas, Nepal has finally decided to resume issuing on-arrival visas for tourists and has also started allowing commercial flights from India and Bangladesh.
A day after the Covid Crisis Management Center recommended that the government resume on-arrival visas for tourists, the Oli government on Wednesday heeded the recommendation to combat decreasing tourism revenue. Tourism-based industries are struggling to remain afloat as trekking trails remain empty, leading to massive losses of tourism revenue. Tourism entrepreneurs are debt-ridden as trekking and mountaineering guides claim that they are facing the toughest economic crisis of their times.
In 2019, Nepal had welcomed more than one million tourists. More tourists, at least double the number the previous year, were expected in 2020, which had been heavily promoted as the Visit Nepal Year. The tourism event was, however, cancelled within two months of its official launch as fear of the virus swept the nation. Subsequently, all spring mountaineering expeditions were also cancelled, crippling a major source of income for the country.
Nepal has welcomed very few tourists since the lockdown and has lost hundreds of millions of dollars of tourism revenue, which has rendered many workers in the tourism industry jobless for months. In 2019 alone, Nepal had generated USD 2 billion from tourism and tourism-based industries.
Despite government officials’ claims that the lockdown has been effective in containing the virus, the coronavirus has continued to spread, forcing major cities to implement curfews as an additional measure to contain the spread.
Currently, the national infection tally has reached 226,026, while the death toll stands at 1,389, according to the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP).
The daily infection rate is on the rise. Yet, the government has taken no measures to combat the virus other than asking the public to maintain social distancing and to wear a mask, leaving it to the public to practice precaution, rather than monitoring for compliance of safety protocols.
On Wednesday, the MoHP reported 1,948 infections, of which 835 were detected in Kathmandu Valley. A mere 9,210 tests were conducted on the day, despite the government’s claim of having the capacity to conduct 26,000 tests daily. The government has steadily reduced daily testing, rather than boosting it, which has shaped the public perception that the number of detections will skyrocket if the government provides sufficient testing.
Shops, restaurants, offices, and other institutions continue to remain open. Public transport vehicles seldom impose safety protocols on passengers, as the majority of the public, too, seems to have lost its fear of the virus. Domestic tourists have been heading to high-end tourist destinations, such as the Everest region—because they can avail of such travel packages during the spring season for the first time. Those working in the tourism sector are thus facing a dilemma: “If we do not fear the virus, we will get infected. But if we fear it, we will surely die,” said a tourism entrepreneur.
Tourism workers and entrepreneurs, who have lost millions worth of business this year, are pleased with the government’s decision to resume welcoming foreign tourists.
“We are happy with the government’s decision to allow in tourists because hundreds of thousands of people rely on tourism. But because the virus has spread across the country, we do have to practice caution,” said Mingma Sherpa, chairperson of Seven Summit Treks.