Kathmandu, Nepal – Two months after 8,712 people were killed and 22,493 injured in Nepal’s devastating April 25 earthquake, the country is still struggling to rebuild.
The sheer scale of the reconstruction is daunting. About three million Nepalese have been displaced and 700,000 homes and 7,000 schools need to be rebuilt. With the monsoon rains having arrived earlier this month, the priority now is providing shelter to those left homeless in remote locations.
Most open spaces and parks in the old city centre are now filled with blue-and-orange tarpaulins, sheltering families who have been left homeless. These spots of bright colour also dot fields in outlying areas of the city, where many traumatised families still prefer to sleep outdoors because of aftershocks.
Meanwhile, the Nepalese government is concerned that the disaster and its aftermath will drive away tourists – a major source of foreign currency for Nepal.
In 2013, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that tourists injected $1.6bn into the country’s economy. Of Nepal’s 27 million people, more than 500,000 work in the tourism sector, and the jobs of an estimated 1.1 million more people are indirectly tied to it.
Speaking through a translator, Kripa Sur Sherpa, Nepal’s new minister for culture, tourism and civil aviation, admitted that damage to Kathmandu’s heritage sites was a big loss for the country’s tourism sector.
But, he added, the majority of Nepal’s trekking locations were open for business. He urged adventure tourists to return to Nepal now.
“We have only lost 15 percent of our adventure tourism; 85 percent is still there,” Sherpa said.
Sherpa, Nepal’s third tourism minister to be appointed within the past year, is optimistic that restoration of Kathmandu’s major attractions will take just two to three years.
“I have visited all the damaged sites in the Kathmandu valley and have already started consulting with technical experts [about] how we can revive and assist the recovery of those places,” Sherpa said.
In downtown Kathmandu, the capital, army bulldozers have cleared the debris left after two historic pagodas in Durbar Square and many of the surrounding facades were destroyed.
Despite the scale of the destruction and the country’s limited resources, Kathmandu appears to be back in business. Shops and hotels are open, the roads are clear, the power supply has been restored and the international airport is operational.
Pilgrims are flocking to the iconic Boudhanath Stupa, which had been damaged in a subsequent May 12 earthquake. Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu sites, has reopened.
Emerging markets analyst Daniel Martin from Capital Economics (Asia) predicted Nepal’s tourism industry could actually rebound post-quake – as experienced by the Philippines in the wake of the Typhoon Haiyan disaster in 2013.
“Generally speaking, the negative economic effects of natural disasters tend to be very short-lived. And depending on the size of reconstruction spending, growth can actually be given a boost in the medium term,” Martin said.
This optimism was echoed by Sue Badyari, chief executive officer of World Expeditions, one of the major international trekking companies operating in Nepal.
Badyari said trail conditions have been reviewed and treks to the Annapurna and Everest regions will resume in September 2015, after the monsoon season ends.
“We have close to 140 trips operating from the beginning of September through to the end of 2015, and we’re finding travellers are keen to continue with their plans,” Badyari said.
She added the company, which employs 150 Nepalese staff, cancelled only six treks after the April 25 earthquake.
“We have a core staff group who remain employed on the same basis as they were prior to the earthquake. Other staff are employed seasonally, so the impact has been minimal as the trekking season was coming to an end,” explained Badyari.
“We are now working to launch a series of Rebuild Nepal community projects through our not-for-profit division, and we plan on redirecting as many staff as we can to these trips, if regular trekking work is not available,” Badyari said.
However, other areas of Nepal that were untouched by the earthquake have seen a significant drop in the number of tourists.
Lumbini, which is close to the Nepalese-Indian border, is revered by Buddhists worldwide as the historic birthplace of Buddha. Last year, about 1.7 million people, mostly from India, visited Lumbini.
But although Lumbini was not damaged, the number of tourists here has dwindled and hotels are empty – a devastating blow to long-standing government plans to boost religious tourism to the region, and target the high-end market by building two five-star hotels in the area.
In late May, the local Siddharth Hotel Association pleaded for tourists to return to their region.
Association spokesman Chetan Pant, just back from a publicity trip to Bangkok, said the number of tourists is about 40 percent lower compared to levels last year. Nevertheless, he said, “there are no job losses in tourism, as entrepreneurs are still campaigning to boost tourism”.
Meanwhile, Communist Party of Nepal (UML) General Secretary Ishwar Pokhrel said the disaster has united the country, a remarkable undertaking given the political turbulence of the past two decades.
“Nepalese political parties are united and Nepalese people are united,” Pokhrel said.
“If you want to help our country, please visit Nepal. If you love Nepal and you love Nepali people, you have to visit.”