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Everest Jubilee Renews Interest in Travel to Nepal - 2003-05-28

The excitement surrounding this week's Everest Golden Jubilee celebrations has produced a resurgence in travel to Nepal. The country's tourism industry has been suffering in recent years from instability, both at home and in the world at large.

The enthusiasm surrounding the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's and Tenzing Norgay's history-making climb is breathing some life into Nepal tourism.

The Pacific Asia Travel Association, or PATA, has been tracking visitor arrivals into Nepal. Those figures have shot up from about 16,000 in January to almost 21,000 last month.

But John Koldowski, PATA's director of strategic intelligence, says the data is misleading.

"In the first four months of this year, air traffic into Nepal has actually jumped by about five percent," he said. "You need to be careful however, because even a moderate performance when compared to a disastrous one looks pretty good."

The term "disastrous" is not an exaggeration. Tourist arrivals to Nepal plummeted from almost half a million in 1999 to about 215,000 in 2002.

One of the main reasons for the decline: the government declared a state of emergency in late 2001 to help battle a Maoist rebellion that has killed thousands in seven years.

Nepal's National Planning Commission estimates the rebellion has cost Nepal around $500 million. That figure accounts for losses in damaged industries and trade. But a significant portion of it comes from tourism, which employs 200,000 people in Nepal and makes up about four percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. Tourism is also Nepal's third largest source of foreign exchange revenue.

Tek Dangi, CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board, agrees the rebellion has taken a toll.

"There has definitely been a huge decline in the last few years," he said.

But Mr. Dangi says the Maoist rebels have made a point of saying publicly they are not targeting tourists and so he accuses the media of exaggerating the danger.

"Our image was portrayed in a wrong way," he said. "There was much news about emergency internationally-rather than saying tourists are still safe."

A cease-fire has been in effect since January while the rebels participate in peace talks with the government.

But Nepal political science professor, Kapil Shreshta, says many Nepalese are skeptical about the prospects for those talks.

"Maoists are also biding for their time... so people feel as if Maoists are trying to regroup," the professor said.

In the meantime, Australia and the United States are among the nations that warn their citizens about travel in Nepal.

Despite the fact that very few tourists have been hurt, PATA's John Koldowski says just the perception of trouble is enough to keep travelers away.

"There's a perception of any sort of danger, whether you get caught in a crossfire or anything like that, you just don't want to be around it," he said.

Other incidents have also hurt the tourism industry in recent years. In 1999, Kashmiri extremists hijacked an Air India jet to Kandahar, Afghanistan, prompting India to suspend flights to Nepal's capital, Kathmandu.

In June of 2001, the country's crown prince, Dipendra, gunned down the king, queen, and six other members of the royal family before turning the gun on himself.

Months later, the attacks of September 11 caused a drop in travel and tourism worldwide. In Nepal specifically, more than 50 percent of hotel bookings for that year's September-November tourism season were canceled.

Most recently, fears over the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, have led to a sharp drop in tourist arrivals from East Asia.

For the moment, though, Nepal is reliving the glory days of the first Everest climb in 1953. The spirit of optimism surrounding this week's Golden Jubilee may even make some remember the words of a former Nepalese tourism minister: as long as Mount Everest remains where it is, the tourists will keep coming.