Protester in Nepal November 2013.

Ethnic protests, fuel shortage latest blows to Nepal tourism

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Just when Nepal was recovering from the devastating earthquake that killed thousands, flattened communities and chased away foreign tourists, protests by ethnic groups and severe fuel shortages are again keeping visitors away from the nation known for the world’s highest peaks.

The comeback that the damaged tourism industry had hoped would begin in October, normally the high season for visitors, has failed to materialize, in part because of protests and other troubles that began in August.

“We have already had at least 40 per cent cancellations from tourists who had planned to visit Nepal in autumn season, and that number is expected to be much, much more,” said Hari Man Lama of Kathmandu-based Incentive Tours, who added that it would take at least a year for the industry to recover.

This time of year at the tourist hub of Thamel in Kathmandu, people usually walk shoulder to shoulder along the narrow alley lined with stores for trekking gear, souvenirs, cafes and restaurants. Yet today, there is only a thin presence of visitors.

Those who have made it to Nepal are having difficulty getting around because of the fuel shortages.

Canadian tourist Darren Flach, from Calgary, had plans to trek the Mount Annapurna circuit, a picturesque trail surrounding the world’s 10th-highest mountain. But now he is thinking of shortening his vacation.

“I did not imagine it was going to be so tough. I am planning to return, the sooner the better,” Flach said, adding that he was just going to cycle around Kathmandu because taxis were asking too much money.

“I have come before to Nepal during this season, and I can tell you there is lot less people this year,” he said.

The poor Himalayan country is expected to receive far fewer than the 790,000 tourists it saw last year. Tourist money is one of the main sources of foreign currency for Nepal, and which is necessary to import everything from oil and cars to clothes.

The April earthquake that killed 8,900 people — including 19 Mount Everest climbers — and destroyed hundreds of thousands of houses across much of Nepal was the worst but not the only disaster to hit the country and its tourist industry.

Sixteen Nepalese guides were killed in avalanche in April 2014, and that October, a freak storm swept through a popular trekking route and killed 42 people, including foreign hikers.

While the country has much rebuilding ahead, its latest problems are political.

Since August, Madhesi ethnic groups in southern Nepal have been blocking highways to protest the country’s newly adopted constitution. They have blocked a border crossing with India that is normally the entry point for most of Nepal’s fuel and other supplies.

India, which has close ties to the Madhesis, denies Nepal’s accusation that it has imposed a blockade.

The fuel shortage has left long lines at service stations and created a black market for gasoline. Much of the country’s bus service has been cancelled, and those buses still operating are so packed some passengers must travel on the rooftops.

To ease the crisis, the government this week announced a one-time sale of 15 litres (4 gallons) per vehicle. But Tuesday marked the beginning of the two-week Dasain festival, a time when Nepalis travel to their home villages to be with family. At the main bus station in Kathmandu, hundreds of people lined up hoping to get tickets on the few buses that were leaving.

Taxi fares, meanwhile, have increased manifold. Norwegian couple Tom Omdal and Elise Skogheim paid $30 for what would normally be a $6 trip from the Kathmandu airport to their hotel.

“The situation is more serious than what I had expected. It is insane. I did not think it was so bad,” said Skogheim, 26, from Oslo.

It’s not just transport that has been affected. Many restaurants in Thamel have closed because they ran out of cooking gas.

“We did not even get eggs with our breakfast,” Omdal said, sipping his coffee and eating a ham and cheese sandwich at the popular New Orleans Restaurant in Thamel.

The restaurant, one of Kathmandu’s best-known, was serving only a small number of items, none of which required much cooking. And while the place would ordinarily be packed with customers, on this morning the crowd was as sparse as the menu.

Prajun Giri, who runs a trekking gear shop selling thick jackets, boots, lights and rucksacks, said his business is no better.

“Because of the political troubles, blockade and shortages, the number of tourists have really gone down this year. And those who have come here are not going trekking, so not many people are buying from our shop,” he said.

Nepal’s newly installed government says it is determined to resolve the problem. It’s been negotiating with the Madhesi and other ethnic minorities whose demands include more autonomy and a redrawing of state boundaries.

“The first priority of the new government is to resolve the protests and then fully restore the fuel supply,” said Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa.


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