Shashi Malla: Maoists' Bloody War & Tourism
Maoists' Bloody War And Tourism Decline
By Shashi Malla
A largely ignored aspect of the Maoists' so-called people's war is the detrimental effect on the economy in general and tourism in particular.
The bigger tour-operating companies, travel agencies and hotels do not particularly like to discuss the matter publicly, although they have been unfavourably influenced by the prolonged civil strife. This is because most of them have had to contribute secretly to the war-time coffers of the Maoists in no small measure and have in fact nurtured them.
The Ministry of Tourism and the Nepal Tourism Board (the successor organization of the Department of Tourism) have been mute spectators in this silent drama, whereby the tourism industry has not only been brought to its knees, but is in its death throes. Like all bureaucratic organizations, they have shown little innovation in a time of crisis.
In what ways has the Maoist insurgency impacted on tourism? The very fact of death and destruction on a daily basis serves to discourage tourists from visiting our country. The cultural monuments and festivals, the natural beauty and the environment and above all the easy-going and friendly demeanour of the Nepalese are no doubt plus points. However, no one likes to put life and limb in danger.
Then again, HMG and Nepalese embassies and consulates abroad have not thought it prudent to do effective PR work. They have reacted slowly, or not at all to heavily spiced-up and even totally false reports. Many tourists are, therefore, pleasantly surprised when they experience the ground reality here. They are again coming in larger numbers, not because of HMG's positive attitude, but in spite of their negative and irresponsible behaviour.
Many foreign embassies here in Kathmandu, in order to protect their own citizens, have taken the draconian measure of warning them not to visit Nepal. This has been the case with the United States, the U.K., Japan and Denmark, among others. We may, or may not agree, but they are definitely within their legitimate purview. It is HMG and particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which have failed miserably in their line of duty. Their infamous maxim: talk big and do nothing!
Most tour operators, travel agencies and trekking organizations have faced heavy cancellations; many have folded up, or are on the verge of doing so. The hotels are in the midst of a cutthroat price war and operating below par. The very livelihood of the office workers and other employees in the tourism industry is at stake.
Not only the Kathmandu Valley, but large parts of the countryside are facing the brunt of the Maoists tactics and grand strategy. Fewer tourists mean that the trekking lodges are more or less empty. The tea stalls sell next to nothing, small businesses selling local products are withering away and the porters are starving.
The trekking tourists who do venture to Nepal in spite of the unholy alliance between HMG and certain foreign embassies then have to face the highway robbers posing as enlightened revolutionaries. They pay forced donations to the gun slinging and grenade brandishing Maobadi - many just snotty teens. These "small contributions" to their "great cause" can range from rupees one thousand to a hundred U.S. Dollars or Euros. Even the accompanying Nepalese trekking guides, cooks, Sherpas and porters have to pay up. So much for proletarian solidarity and equality! These forced contributions undoubtedly contribute to the life-style of the Maobadi at all levels and enable them to buy arms and ammunition. The Maoist modus operandi also undoubtedly inspires copy-cat behaviour among the "Khaobadi" and criminal elements. The net effect is, of course, to reduce tourist influx even more. Since the Maoists have mastered the art of disappearing among the local populace and living like fish in water, the army, it seems, is helpless to do anything. The army top brass are at their wits end and lacking in ingenious ways and means and the intelligence infrastructure is conspicuous by its absence.
It is astounding that this is also the case in the capital area, where a "Valley Division" is most ineffective in preventing bombings and political murders by the treacherous Maoists and their henchmen. How can tourism flourish, when even in the metropolitan area such atrocities are a way of daily life? The PM as Defence Minister has much to answer in this regard.
There is, however, a ray of hope in this tourism quagmire. Unlike other friendly countries, Germany, for instance, has trodden the path of "tourism optimism". The travel recommendation of the German foreign office and their embassy here in Kathmandu is a model to be emulated by other countries.
Germany, in fact, does not call upon its citizens to avoid Nepal in toto. Their travel advisory is very balanced. Thus, it cautions its citizens to avoid the western districts of Dolpa, Rukum, Rolpa, Salyan, Surkhet, Jajarkot, Dailekh, Kalkot, Syangja, Gulmi and Argakhanchi and the eastern districts of Sankhuwasabha, Taplejung and Bhojpur. It strongly recommends to travel/trek in groups. This is fair enough.
As a result of this positive attitude, Germany's two leading tour operators in cultural-trekking-mountaineering tourism are still flourishing in spite of HMG.s lackadaisical policy towards tourism development and regardless of Maoist intimidation.