Every Cloud has a Silver Lining. Even COVID-19

n-a TASHI GURUNG, Daayitwa Fellow 2021 , 10th November,2021

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourism industry in Nepal has been hit the hardest of all industries. Scholars and tourism stakeholders are quick to claim that the tourism industry in Nepal has suffered the steepest drop since the 1960s when Nepal first opened its door to foreign tourists.

It was different this time. As I entered the colorfully decorated welcome gate of Lo-manthang, Mustang, I did not get the usual feeling of excitement but rather a feeling of mental distress and uneasiness: apprehensive for the safety of the locals first and then myself amidst a global pandemic. Lomanthang, also known as “The Ancient Walled City” is the historical capital of Upper Mustang, “The Forbidden Kingdom.” Upper Mustang has been a very popular destination for foreigners and even more for domestic tourists. The incredible combination of the exquisite landscape (majestic and eye-catching views of the glorious mountains like Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, sky caves, canyons) and its unique culture (untouched temples, monasteries, shrines, sky caves where monks used to meditate centuries ago and still do, colorful festivals and red-robed lamas, the kingdom preserves not only the daily vernacular of Buddhist ethics but a unique heritage of Tibetan religious art) is what makes the Upper Mustang region a very favorable and popular tourist destination in recent years. Rarely any human would be immune to getting goosebumps after stepping into Upper Mustang. It is, however, different this time.

 

I met Tsewang, a middle-aged young hotel owner, in front of Tashi Delek guest house just about 100 feet from the entrance gate that says “welcome to Lo-manthang” in all three languages: Nepali, English, and Tibetan. Tsewang waved at me and smiled as I approached his guest house, but it was apparent his smile was just a decoy. A sense of discomfort was written all over his face. I had read somewhere that there are 19 types of smiles and only six represent positive feelings. It is so strange that a widely accepted and innocuous facial expression such as a smile is actually more representative of just the opposite of what we have been taught to believe. Upon asking Tsewang how things are, I was dismayed to learn what Tsewang and many other individuals/households involved in tourism across the country have been through since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic. During my pilot research in 2018, I had asked Tsewang what he wanted to do in the future. Tsewang was very clear that he wanted to stay in his birthplace and was adamant about not going abroad to make a living unlike flocks of Nepali youth migrating abroad. This time I did not see that level of intensity/fire/energy in his attitude. On the contrary, Tsewang’s expression seemed distinct and unfamiliar to what usually is a charming face. An expression that is undoubtedly a by-product of a sense of feeling defeated, exhausted, frustrated, and discouraged.  

 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourism industry in Nepal has been hit the hardest of all industries. Scholars and tourism stakeholders are quick to claim that the tourism industry in Nepal has suffered the steepest drop since the 1960s when Nepal first opened its door to foreign tourists. And very righteously so. Months-long lockdown, restricted international travel, failed health care system,  poor management and mishandling of the crisis, (and the list goes on) have upended the hopes people have from tourism. We have been here before. The April 2015 Nepal earthquake gave us a taste of what the tourism industry looks like without tourists, but tourism bounced back quickly in a matter of months. COVID-19, however, has exposed the uncertainty of the tourism industry in a much more convincing way. Tourism has been dead since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 and the livelihoods of people who are engaged in tourism, like Tsewang, are in limbo. What have the concerned agencies or the government has done for people like Tsewang? I understand, given their limited capacity, the effort of the central, provincial, and local governments to provide access to vaccines to its most vulnerable constituents is commendable. But what else? Was/Is there any assistance from the government to individuals who have been gravely impacted by COVID-19? What is being done from a policy perspective to help respond to the pandemic? When Tsewang professed, out of sheer disappointment, that he should have gone abroad to work, that his ideals of doing something at home has cost him dearly, and seriously considering going abroad, I was not surprised, but a little disappointed. When I asked, “you said you are against going to a foreign land to work. Now you are seriously thinking about doing something you said you would never do.” Very rarely in my life, I have had my face turn red instantly out of vicarious embarrassment. Tsewang’s response was one of those rare occasions. Tsewang said, “who is going to make sure my children are fed, who is going to ensure they get proper education, YOU? We do things for our children we thought we would never do. You would understand when you have children of your own.”

 

There has been an unprecedented increase in the volume of Nepali youth headed abroad for employment. According to the Nepal Labour Migration Report 2020 published by the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, Nepal Government has approved 110 countries for labor migration through recruitment agencies and has issued over 4 million labor approvals since 2008/09. Disclaimer: The current population of Nepal is 28.6 million which means almost 15% of Nepali youth are working abroad. It is evident that Nepalese, primarily youth, are out-migrating at an exponential rate. The most pressing issue driving youth out of the country has been the lack of employment opportunities in Nepal. In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the world economy is gravely impacted. For developing countries like Nepal, the economic impact is even more devastating than it was already prior to the pandemic. The economic consequences of the pandemic in Nepal are projected to be most acute to the youth while the unemployment rate spikes as a result of unprecedented disruption in the labor market. For years to come, the economic scar and the lasting impact of the pandemic are expected, the COVID-19, however, presents a silver lining: a resilient recovery of the economy. At the risk of sounding unhealthily optimistic, inconsiderate, and extremely insensitive to the grave ramification of COVID-19, I must say this pandemic has given us a valuable opportunity to reflect and re-evaluate the existing institutional arrangements in the tourism sector. If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is that our existing system is flawed, it is not resilient to external shocks/disturbances and it seriously needs rebooting. In addition, we can take this moment to reset and transform the economy profoundly by reassessing, rethinking, and amending the fiscal policy and spurring innovative evidence-based policies in the tourism sector. 

 

The tourism industry, even though it is not a panacea, has the potential of providing an enabling environment for citizens, particularly the youths, to be employed and undertake entrepreneurial ventures. The advent of the tourism industry in the near future after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, if managed effectively, has the potential to contribute significantly to the country’s economy, motivate the youth to engage, and even appeal the return of those away from home. In the year 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism contributed to 7.9% of Nepal’s GDP amounting to Rs. 240.7 billion in revenue and supported more than 1.05 million jobs directly and indirectly last year, according to the annual World Travel and Tourism Council research report. The number of international tourist arrivals in 2019 was 1.17 million. I suppose it is not irrational to have a target of 5 million tourists annually while France is setting a target of 100 million visitors. I am sure today’s youth including Tsewang will have plenty of reasons to stay in their motherland and not worry about their future. For that to happen, the business as usual approach will not work. We need to acknowledge and face the systemic challenges. It would be utterly foolish to expect different results without doing anything different.

 

Image Gallery



Sponsor Us

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipisicing elit. Officia accusamus aspernatur beatae perspiciatis nulla doloremque ab iusto voluptatibus harum magni, animi autem numquam rerum velit at temporibus odio, eius laudantium, dicta neque nesciunt dolorem repudiandae maiores cumque. Voluptates at obcaecati unde nemo alias minus aspernatur eos quae natus, consectetur porro laudantium temporibus ipsum molestiae eum.