Nepal on the Rebound

Tourism is the golden key to help this earthquake-rattled country rebuild. The outdoor industry can help.

By Avery Stonich December 28, 2015

The devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015, didn’t just destroy buildings and villages; it shook the entire country’s image. Pictures of majestic peaks and smiling faces morphed to horrific scenes of rubble and suffering. The world rushed to help, but for all its good intentions, global sympathy overlooked one major casualty: Nepal’s tourism industry, which dried up instantly after the earthquake and now flows at a mere trickle.

Yet tourism holds the key to bolstering Nepal’s shattered economy. And the outdoor industry can help.

Tourism in Nepal has taken a huge hit, even in areas that suffered little to no earthquake damage. Tourist numbers plummeted 90 percent after the disaster. An industry that pumps $787.5 million into the country’s economy every year and represents 4.3 percent of its gross domestic product evaporated overnight and, six months later, is struggling to build back momentum. Officials estimate the year will finish 65 percent down from 2014.

Bhaktapur was one of the harder-hit regions of Nepal, but life and business are returning to normal.

Bhaktapur was one of the harder-hit regions of Nepal, but life and business are returning to normal.

Nepal now has a serious image problem—one that Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) are hoping to change with AdventureWeek Rebound Nepal on the Great Himalaya Trails. This program recently brought 18 international media and tour operators to Nepal to experience the country first-hand and help spread the message that Nepal is open and ready for business.

Tour operators are hopeful that putting a positive media spotlight on Nepal will help rebuild the country’s allure as a destination. Notwithstanding generous financial support, travelers remain reluctant to book trips to Nepal, to actually put their boots on the ground. Some companies have added rebuilding itineraries in an effort to appeal to those who want to contribute in a hands-on way.

Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Journeys International has raised $100,000 in donations and is offering a rebuilding trip, but said interest in traveling to Nepal is anemic. “All of the people contacting us about Nepal have been asking about how they support rebuilding,” said Robin Pollak, the company’s president. “We’re discouraged that we haven’t gotten more interest in people wanting to travel there.”

Nepal tour bookings have dropped as much as 60 percent.

She says it’s important that people understand that simply traveling to Nepal is a great way to support rebuilding. “Travel doesn’t have to be volunteer related. Take a great trip, and that will be helpful to the country.”

A woman in Kathmandu stands in front of a badly damaged building.

A woman in Kathmandu stands in front of a badly damaged building.

Grand Asian Journeys out of Indianola, Washington, has also raised more than $100,000 for Nepal relief. To boost its Nepal tour bookings, which have dropped 60 percent, the company is offering several rebuilding trips, giving travelers a choice to combine trekking or biking with service work.

“The rebuilding trips are floating our first and second quarter Nepal business right now,” said Pam Perry, the company’s director of operations. “I hope positive images from AdventureWeek help change people’s perceptions about the traveling conditions in Nepal and help our bookings rebound for 2016.”

International tour companies whose customers are wary of Nepal can divert travelers to other destinations, softening the blow to business. Nepali tour operators don’t have that option. And they’re suffering, with business down anywhere from 50 to 80 percent, according to conversations with tour operators.

“Business is diminished. In my case, it’s down 80 percent or more,” said Sandesh Acharya, CEO of Adventure Imagine.

“All of the people in the mountain regions have been affected by this because all of their business is from tourism,” said Bhuwan Rarj Tiwari, CEO of Devo Adventures. ‘It’s a very tough time for us right now.”.

Nepal is pleading for people to return, recognizing tourism’s role in long-term support for the economy. Tourism in Nepal directly supports 487,500 jobs (3.5 percent of employment). Add in the ripple effect, and this number leaps to 1 million jobs and 7.5 percent of total employment.

“Come back,” says Jwalant Gurung, a Nepali who works with Grand Asian Journeys and also runs his own company, Crystal Mountain Treks. “It’s definitely the right time to come. People have been very generous in donating to a lot of the rebuilding and relief efforts here. But I think their dollars would go a lot farther if they came here and visited. Come here and then go back and tell stories.”

Shannon Stowell, president of ATTA, suggests companies consider doing catalog photo shoots in Nepal and finding other ways to portray the country in an inspiring light.

In the months to come, the outdoor industry’s support will continue to be important.

“Outdoor companies can support trips there and encourage customers to go there,” said Amy Roberts, OIA’s executive director. “Tourism is a huge part of their economy, and we need to ensure that they continue to have those dollars come in.”

Roberts says sponsored athlete trips to Nepal will also help positive images filter back to potential travelers.

The ATTA continues to look for ways to support Nepal. “We are going to be looking for creative partnerships at Winter OR in regard to Nepal and promotion of Nepal,” said Shannon Stowell, president of ATTA. He suggests companies consider doing catalog photo shoots in Nepal and finding other ways to portray the country in an inspiring light. “You can’t beat the cultural and scenic richness that Nepal has,” he said.

Is your brand or company planning any efforts to revive tourism in Nepal, whether through sponsored trips, marketing initiatives or other avenues? Let us know about it. Email or managing content editor, Deborah Williams.