Pokhara, Nepal – Nepal’s vital tourism sector is facing a double whammy amid acute fuel shortages that have quashed hopes of an economic recovery following the cataclysmic April 25 earthquake.
The 7.8-magnitude temblor and its aftershocks killed more than 9,000 people, displaced another three million, and destroyed key trekking trails and historical sites.
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The Himalayan nation gets all of its petroleum products from India, which Nepal accuses of imposing a fuel embargo over the past month. India denies the allegation, saying its truck drivers and tourists are too scared to enter Nepal because of violence and unrest in Terai, the country’s southern border region.
As a result of the fuel shortages, Nepal’s economy is being strangled. Ordinary Nepalis are bearing the brunt of the shortages, after fuel and cooking gas became black-market commodities that only the privileged few can afford.
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Meanwhile, mass cancellations of bookings by foreign travellers and renewed travel warnings by Western governments have raised fears of an economic fallout in Nepal that could dwarf that caused by the tremors.
“After the earthquake, this season presented a lot of hope that Nepal was going to bounce back, that people would have jobs and income again,” said Matt Gardner of Heart and Tears Motorcycle Tours in the city of Pokhara, some 200km west of the capital, Kathmandu.
“But just when things had started to look positive, we have another crisis, a political one.”
The fuel crisis is a symptom of Nepal’s first long-wrangled constitution, which was passed on September 20. The long-marginalised Madhesi and Tharu, minority groups that live in southern Nepal, say the constitution leaves them underrepresented in the federal government.
When their demands for amendments were ignored, they hit the Kathmandu power base where it hurt the most, by blocking border crossings and disrupting customs checkpoints, which are the lifeblood of the landlocked country.
The Nepalese government claims that India, which has close cultural ties to the Madhesi, is working in cahoots with protesters to disrupt imports and make the government capitulate to their demands.
Nearly 50 protesters and police have been killed at demonstrations, while the south’s two primary tourist attractions – Chitwan National Park, home to many Asian rhinoceroses; and Lumbini, the assumed birthplace of Buddha and a popular pilgrimage site – remain no-go zones.
The US, Australian and UK governments have issued warnings to steer clear of Nepal’s southern provinces. They also warned that fuel shortages are hampering emergency services and everyday travel throughout the country.
In Kathmandu, tourists are finding it impossible to board dangerously overcrowded buses, while taxi fares have skyrocketed. A New Zealand expatriate told Al Jazeera he paid $38 for a 20-minute drive into the city that normally costs less than $5.
Many restaurants in Thamel, Kathmandu’s hodgepodge high-rise tourist district, cannot operate as they have no cooking gas.
“I went into my favourite cafe yesterday, and they only had two items on the breakfast menu,” said Barry Richards, a cartoonist from Australia. “It’s just a small inconvenience, but it affects me to see how Nepalese are struggling after the hard time they’ve had since the earthquake. They don’t deserve this.”
Chinese tourists have also been conspicuously absent in Thamel since Chinese Eastern Airlines cancelled flights to and from Nepal earlier this month, citing the unavailability of aviation fuel at Kathmandu airport.
Domestic carriers are also warning that unless the government provides them with fuel for their minivans, they will not be able to get their staff to airports.
Even internet service providers that rely on diesel generators to stay online during Nepal’s daily power outages have said they will have to halt services if the crisis persists.
“The fuel shortage has come just as travellers are starting to return to the country,” said Geoff Manchester, cofounder of Intrepid Travel, one of the largest trekking operators in Nepal. “We have had to make adjustments to all our scheduled departures.”
Tourism officials in Nepal could not be reached for comment.
Pokhara: Ground zero
The fuel crisis’ effect on tourism are biggest in Pokhara. A lakeside city of 250,000 people surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it is regarded as the adventure tourism capital of Nepal.
But tourism operators here need petrol and diesel to operate, and few can afford to pay black-market rates. This reporter paid an off-duty service station attendant $10 a litre for five litres of fuel – 10 times the regular price – while other tourists reported paying as much as $20 per litre.
“We have had to cancel our flights because we can’t get to the launch site,” said British national Scott Mason of The Parahawking Project, a unique adrenaline sport that combines paragliding with the ancient discipline of falconry.
“Everyone is struggling. Rafting companies can’t get their customers to the rivers. Trekking companies can’t get their customers into the mountains,” Mason said.
On Pokhara’s lakeside drive, where moving cars and motorbikes are becoming an increasingly rare sight, retailers have slashed their asking prices by half.
“This should be the peak season, but tourism I think is down 70 percent,” said Binod Aryal of The Craft Centre Pokhara.
At a cashmere clothing store next door, a sales assistant who did not wish to give her name said they had not sold any goods in three days.
Rajendra Dhakal, owner of the Glacier Hotel, a new 50-room boutique property in Pokhara, voiced similar sentiments. “Before the blockade by the Indian government, we had 90 percent of our rooms booked for the October-November peak season,” he said. “But now, nearly all of our forward bookings have been cancelled. Only one in 10 of our rooms are occupied.”
But where there is necessity, there is also invention.
Mason of the Parahawking Project cannot take customers into the sky, so instead he is offering falconry experiences that give tourists the chance to learn the fundamentals of bird-keeping and exercise their birds by the lake.
Gardner of Hearts and Tears Motorcycle Tours has been driving around the country buying small quantities of fuel from various insider sources to ensure that forward booking for tours could go ahead as scheduled. And restaurateurs lacking cooking gas are reverting to traditional ways to prepare food.
“They are spending their mornings out in the forests collecting firewood,” said the Glacier Hotel’s Dhakal in his capacity as an executive member of the Restaurant and Bar Association of Nepal. “Cooking with fire makes the food more delicious, so the tourists who are here in Pokhara are being really well-fed.”
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Added Manchester of Intrepid Travel: “The tourism industry is bending over backwards to ensure the best possible experience for travellers. We expect all trips to depart as usual this week.”
Tourism back on track?
Nepal’s former prime minister Sushil Koirala recently stepped down as required under the new constitution, and parliament voted in Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal as the country’s next leader.
With a mandate to calm protests and smooth tensions with India, Oli moved quickly and appointed Madhesi group leader Bijaya Gachchedar as one of his two deputies.
Yet, while there has recently been some movement at the border, with about 50 Indian oil tankers entering Nepal daily, only small amounts of rationed fuel have reached the pumps in Kathmandu.
At a Caltex service station in Sorhakhutte, a five-minute walk from the Thamel tourist hub in Kathmandu, riot police were out in force.
Armed with wooden batons, they prevented a potentially violent confrontation between motorists waiting in a double-parked queue stretching two kilometres. One group had accused another of pushing in. It was a scene unbecoming of a nation asking travellers to put Nepal back on their itineraries to help the post-earthquake recovery effort.
“I am worried because tourism is the main industry of our country,” said Kumar Rana, a driver with Himalayan Encounters in Kathmandu. “If it doesn’t go smoothly, it will affect all of us.”