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Tourism: Maldivian and Nepali business leaders urge collaboration to revive industry

PRISTINE MOUNTAINS OF NEPAL – The country struggles with getting visitors back on the slopes

ECONOMYNEXT -The post COVID- 19 revival of the tourism industry across South Asia will require more regional collaboration, even as each country devises its own strategies in dealing with internal challenges.

Indeed, for countries such as the Maldives and Nepal, whose economies are heavily dependent on the tourism sector, getting their countries back on the ‘safe destinations’ list is of utmost importance. The revival of the tourist industry will certainly depend on all stakeholders, governments and the private sector working in tandem.

Participating in an online business dialogue, ‘Restart Asian Economies – Ideas and Actions for the Hotel Industry,’ organized by the Friederich Neumann Foundation for Freedom, South Asia, on September 21, Dr Mariyam Shakeela of the Maldives and Bhawani Rana of Nepal shared the challenges faced and initiatives taken their respective governments and on regional cooperation to boost the troubled tourism industry.

Shakeela, a former Cabinet Minister is the CEO of SIMDI Group, while Rana is currently the President of the Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and also the Managing Director of Hotel Sneha Pvt. Ltd.

Both presenters agreed that regionally, it is time to end airline price wars, so travel within the SAARC region, in particular, would be more affordable. Such an initiative could, for one, promote more travel between South Asian nations and be especially attractive for middle-income earners.

In the case of Nepal, pointed out Rana, direct and low-cost flights would ensure more Nepalese visiting Sri Lanka and the Maldives and vice versa. Currently having to take a connecting flight to both these countries, means more Nepalese limiting their travel to neighbouring India or Thailand. Travel via ship and crossing borders through other modes of transport too should be explored.

Here, they point out that better government to government cooperation is essential, leaving aside political agendas and biases, to open up more regional travel. Following the EU example may be one way to go, says Shakeela. She also suggests a regional hub that could address pandemic situations, similar to that brought about by COVID- 19.

They point out that South Asia itself has a rich multicultural heritage and is home to much biodiversity.

Therefore, more package tours encompassing two or three countries within South Asia could be one initiative. For instance, one package could promote visiting the sunny beaches of the Maldives and the serene mountains of Nepal. There is also much potential in introducing a Buddhist circuit encompassing Nepal, India, Sri Lanka etc. or the Hindu package, Ayurveda and meditation, which Rana suggests could be promoted as life-line as opposed to lifestyle tourism.

Says Shakeela, providing regional rehabilitation centres and geriatric facilities would be another option, while also promoting each other’s countries as wedding or conference destinations. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) too need to explore more strategies that would boost regional tourism, the two pointed out.

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Current health guidelines the world over requires a two week quarantine period on arrival and on return to home countries. How would this now work for travellers taking time off from work? Would governments and private sector employers adjust vacation leave to include these requirements?

Government to government Memorandums of Understanding on safety protocols too should be explored, they added.

TOURIST DEPENDENT – Nepal and the Maldives want to reduce dependancy on the Tourist Industry

With working from home now a trend, would governments extend visas to allow tourists to move to their preferred destinations and convert their stays to long working holidays?

Meanwhile, both countries are addressing challenges peculiar to them; for the Maldives, just as it works on winning back source markets, it is also about developing their human resources, particularly in the health care system so they would be better prepared if and when another emergency situation such as COVID-19 occurs.

Says Shakeela, the government has lost no time in launching various campaigns, such as “Rediscover Maldives” and their ‘ Sun will Shine again’ Facebook project introduced just prior to reopening the airport, to jump-start the industry. Given that most of their islands are resorts, their ‘One Island, One Resort” campaign points to their ability to ensure social distancing and limiting visitors to a resort island and upholding safety standards from the moment of booking a vacation to baggage handling and beyond. It’s about government and private sector working hand in hand to come up with solutions. Private sector initiatives could include more networking between country to country tour operators.

Looking at the most immediate initiatives, the Maldives is concentrating on making rooms safe and hygienic by limiting the items that can be touched or introducing touch-free toiletries for instance. In short, the country is working towards investing in the Maldives Brand, and creating a sustainable, eco-friendly tourism experience.

As Shakeela pointed out, the effect of the pandemic on the Maldives has been worse than the Tsunami or the Global financial crisis. With close to 90% of the country’s businesses directly or indirectly connected to the tourism industry, its economy has contracted significantly. While most staff on the resorts has been made redundant or retained with no pay or reduced pay, and services of vendors and suppliers to the hotels temporarily discontinued, most former profitable business ventures have closed down or are on verge of doing so. It is now an issue of balancing ‘lives to livelihood,’ she pointed out. Fully projected recovery of the sector is expected around 2024.

The Maldives is hopeful, however; having opened their borders to international travel in mid-July, tourists are slowly but surely trickling in, and according to Shakeela, September 18 had recorded 708 arrivals, the highest since the reopening.

The situation is no better in Nepal, where tourism is a major foreign exchange earner. Following two years of political turmoil, and a new constitution just three years old, Nepal had identified 2020 as the Year of Tourism. The government’s monetary policy was focussed on the tourism sector and geared to attracting more foreign investment and providing tax holidays, stated Rana.

Nepal, which attracts nearly 1.2 million tourists yearly, sees more than a thousand arriving in the country to go trekking in the Himalayas and Everest mountains. But COVID- 19 has put most trekkers and tour operators out of work and negatively impacted hotel staff. Also affected are industries indirectly connected to the hospitality trade, for example Spa’s and handicrafts. A country which had a 65% occupancy rate pre-COVID, had seen it drop to 20% during the lockdown, and has been at zero since, she said.

Nepal too has now reopened its borders and has also recommenced domestic flights. Says Rana, it is time to diversify. Nepal needs to focus more on promoting its other attributes such as its rare fauna and flora and birds, while also targeting more high spending tourists. She explained that tripartite agreements have been introduced between the government, private sector and the employees to avoid retrenchment. Government loans have been offered to meet staff wages, and support has also come in from the Hotels Association. As well, staff has been put on a 15 day on-off rotational shift, where even though their earnings are reduced they continue to be employed.

Preserving the environment too is crucial for the two countries that are heavily dependent on their natural resources to attract tourists; climate change has destroyed some islands in the Maldives and Nepal has been experiencing erratic weather patterns and melting ice.

Both Shakeela and Rana also explained the various barriers women entrepreneurs face in striking out on their own, in heavily male dependent cultures.

If COVID-19 has proved one thing, it is that both countries have realised that being heavily dependent on tourism to boost their economy is not quite prudent. And even as various measures are being considered and adopted to revive that industry, both Nepal and the Maldives has begun investing in other resources such as fishery and agriculture and development projects that will ensure smooth cash flow and enhance economic activity in other sectors. (Colombo, September 28, 2020)

Kshama Ranawana is a freelance contributor