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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Lodging from huts to the high-life

As Nepal pitches itself as a must-visit tourism destination, the country has had to address problems with safety, political turmoil and catering to a wider swath of foreigners.
Trekkers pause to admire Mt Kusum Kangru in Nepal. Reuters
Trekkers pause to admire Mt Kusum Kangru in Nepal. Reuters

Myles Bush has a surprising piece of advice for those considering a visit to Nepal after two weeks of hiking there and close encounters with yaks: "Don't go."

Unless, adds the chief executive of PowerHouse Properties in Dubai, visitors are fond of trekking, climbing or otherwise escaping the country's congested capital city.

"It's chaos," Mr Bush says of Kathmandu. "I thought the place, to be honest, was dirty."

Opinions from travellers such as Mr Bush matter, especially given that tourism is a leading sector in Nepal today and attracted more than 24 billion Nepalese rupees (Dh1.04bn) in spending last year.

The industry is forecast to earn more than 25bn Nepalese rupees from tourists this year, with the highest number of visitors coming from India, the UK, then the US, according to a report released in July from the market research firm Euromonitor International.

Analysts credit the sector's growth to Nepal Tourism Year 2011, a campaign launched last year by government officials to position the country as a prime holiday destination.

It has included hiring famous trekkers - such as Joe Yannuzzi, Sophie Denis and Sean Burch, who were all appointed goodwill ambassadors after successful treks in the Himalayas - to endorse the country, and market Nepal in cities such as New York, Seoul, Singapore and Canberra.

"All the stops were being pulled out to raise awareness of Nepal and improve its image going into 2011," Euromonitor's report says.

While it seems unlikely that Nepal will hit its target to lure at least 1 million tourists this year, it has managed to attract more than 512,000 visitors up to last month, which is a record and up more than 21 per cent from the same period last year, the Nepal Tourism Board said.

In the past, Nepal has struggled to build its image as a desirable tourism destination while addressing the struggles of a developing nation such as road congestion, waste and bouts of political turmoil.

"[Nepal's] national business environment has suffered from difficult internal geography, regional isolation, closed economy and political instability," says one study released this year from Harvard University.

Today, businesses in Nepal's tourism sector are trying to address some of these issues and appeal to a wider swathe of travellers.

There are small changes, such as restaurants catering more closely to visitors from growing markets such as the US, Canada, Germany and France.

In the popular tourist square known as the Hanuman Dhoka Durbar,a handful of eateries have recently rolled out menus with pizza, spaghetti and more familiar fare than local favourites such as buffalo momo and lentil platters with rice.

Government authorities in some tourist-heavy areas have also been granting businesses permission to open later at night. Last month, restaurants and nightclubs in Lake Side within Pokhara Valley started operating past 11pm for the first time.

"We took the step so as to make tourists feel more comfortable and enjoy their stay," Rajendra Singh Bhandari, the deputy inspector general of Nepal's Western Region, told The Kathmandu Post last month.

Begnas Lake Resort, which is located farther away in Pokhara Valley, has been steadily rebuilding its customer base following a surge of political instability in 2002, when country-wide visitor numbers tumbled about 25 per cent.

Back then, serene views of hillside huts and majestic mountains reflected in Begnas Lake were filled with smoke after Maoist insurgents set fire to some of the resort's cottage rooms and restaurant.

Since the resort started rebuilding efforts in 2005, it has added more cottages and an Ayurvedic health clinic with massage rooms to attract European visitors. Last year, it created a conference centre to tap into a growing segment of corporate travellers from India. "This year [business] is much, much better than past years," says Arjun Parajuli, the resort's general manager.

Of course, many who visit Nepal go to trek rocky trails that cut around huge mountains, wind near wooly yaks and stretch across valleys via rope bridges that appear to come right out of a movie. Some hotels that cater to climbers have started expanding operations to include in-house travel agents and even trail guides.

At Ambassador Garden Home in Kathmandu, a boutique hotel nestled in the bustling tourist district of Thamel, Jeevan Sapkota, welcomes guests but also doubles as a travel operator and even trekking guide.

As downscale as this may seem, visitors have ranked Ambassador higher than big brands such as the Crowne Plaza and Hyatt Regency on the travel site TripAdvisor.com.

Yet visitors such as Mr Bush argue that a wider variety of luxury accommodation could attract more high-spending guests. Well-known hotel brands are relatively rare in Nepal today and there may be opportunities for them given the strong performance of some mid-scale chains. Crowne Plaza's Soaltee resort in Kathmandu, for one, says its revenues have increased 27 per cent this year thanks to the country's tourism campaign.

"Nepal has seen tremendous growth in inbound traffic," says Sony Chaudhary, an assistant manager at Crowne Plaza.

Indeed, some companies are trying to take advantage of the increased traffic. This month the local vacation planner, Adventure for All Travels, partnered up with the luxury One Concierge service to provide higher-end packages for honeymooners, trekkers and other adventurers.

The strategy may work in the long-run, as some visitors are all too ready to spend big on luxurious perks.

After two weeks of living in tents and huts while roughing it in the outdoors, Mr Bush says he returned to Kathmandu and asked what is the most expensive hotel? "And I checked myself in."

nparmar@thenational.ae