One year after quake, Nepal eyes tourism

Apr 26, 2016, 5:01 PM EDT
Kathmandu, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, April 25, 2015.
(Source: scrolleditorial/flickr)

Monday marked the one year anniversary of a devastating earthquake that struck Nepal, and major problems remain. Reconstruction has been plagued by delays, and of the $4.4 billion pledged globally, only about $2.8 billion has been delivered. Even worse, most of that has not even been spent.

Much of the blame lies with the Nepalese government. Granted, it was overwhelmed by the scale of damage, including 600,000 homes destroyed and 950,000 children left without schools. No one expected a return to pre-quake levels of infrastructure anytime soon. But the bureaucratic pace has been glacial, undoubtedly exacerbated by corruption at various levels. Only now – after an entire year --  has the government come up with a plan to construct earthquake-resistant houses. Kathmandu is finishing up ​lists of who is eligible for government subsidies, according to CBC News, and on Monday -- for the first time ​since the earthquake -- NGOs were at last ​granted permission to build things other than temporary housing.

Calling the delays unfortunate, the government blamed a constitutional crisis that occurred in September. The resulting protests caused a de facto blockade along the Indian border, hamstringing supply deliveries throughout Nepal (see Blouin News’ coverage.) But that disruption only lasted 4 months until February, and is no excuse for the government’s shortcomings in reconstruction planning – it only set up the National Reconstruction Authority in December.  

Presently, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an estimated 4 million Nepalese are still living in sub-standard temporary shelters in conditions that pose a threat to their health and well-being. A mere 661 families have received the first quarter installment of a 200,000-rupee ($1,868) government grant. And with few opportunities for work or education left in destroyed communities, human trafficking is on the rise. Estimates range from 8,000 to over 20,000 per year, mostly girls and women sent to India for dismal futures of exploitation.

Despite these challenges, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Olli announced the start of "Travel Year" on Monday, imploring domestic and foreign tourists to explore Nepal without hesitation. (He also announced the beginning of reconstruction of key heritage sites in and around Kathmandu that had been damaged by the earthquake.) He emphasized that “most of the tourism destinations are safe except few ones," and urged foreign investors not to withdraw after negative rumors about the safety situation in Nepal.

After the earthquake and subsequent blockade, tourist arrivals to Nepal fell almost 32% from 2014’s level to a six-year low of 538,970 in 2015. Now, however, the Nepal Tourism Board will help the private sector promote tour packages, and encourage the government to provide travel leave for its employees.

The notion that Kathmandu is catering to tourists over locals is misguided; much of Nepal's economy depends on tourism. Everest climbers are back, and other trekkers and travelers will return too.  But tourism alone can’t save the country. Above all the onus is on the government to accelerate sustainable reconstruction.