The vacant administration leadership at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil aviation has been appointed after the unfortunate death of the then tourism minister Rabindra Adhikari in February 2019. Mr. Yogesh Bhattarai has been named the new Tourism minister after five months since the demise of the then minister.
Mr. Bhattarai's appointment has come at a time when not just the building of different airport projects and the arrangement of the "Visit Nepal Year 2020" tourism drive has been in the stagnation; furthermore, the national carrier - Nepal airlines corporation has been struggling for survival financially.
In these circumstances, two journalists of a reputed English daily - The Himalayan Times (THT) caught up with the tourism minister to learn how he intends to address these concerns and push the country's tourism sector.
Photo: Naresh Shrestha/ THT
THT: You have been selected the tourism minister at a critical period when the nation is grappling with accomplishing its tourism aims. What will be your topmost priorities?
Tourism Minister (TM): I am taking notes of all data currently associated with the development of the schemes led by the ministry and other obstacles prevalent in the nation's tourism sector. We will develop a one-year work plan as soon as I gather crucial details on the current developments, and hurdles from relevant bureaus, which will include the ministry as well. Presently the tourism sector is contributing only seven percent to the country's GDP, while it has received nearly 1.2 million tourists. This is certainly unacceptable.
The sector of tourism can play an indispensable role to reduce inequality economically, achieve sustainable growth, and to promote entrepreneurship in the nation. The tourism industry is significant to strengthen Nepal's bilateral relations with different countries, along with helping to reduce gender and social inequalities. Therefore the tourism industry has to be under the government's planned preference indeed.
THT: What is your evaluation of the present difficulties facing the 'country's tourism sector?
Tourism Minister: There are immense obstacles. Fundamentally, the lack of satisfactory and quality tourism foundation has always been the principal bottleneck for the growth of the tourism trade. Likewise, the country's tourism database and information movement are limited. We have not been able to generate enough tourism products while, simultaneously, the existing products lack important branding, promotion on the international market with uniques selling points.
There is an urgent need to efficiently prepare all diplomatic agencies that Nepal has in various countries to market Nepal's tourism sector. Alongside, this, the government offices, and the private sector will need to be mobilized efficiently. It is also evident that the tourism sector has not received satisfactory precedence that it deserves. This will not occur during my tenure.
THT: Despite the nation commemorating the year 2020 as the "Visit Nepal year" to market tourism; the tourism fraternity appears to be unhappy with the preparations. How convinced are you?
Tourism Minister: It is true that the arrangements for the tourism campaign are slack, and have not attained the level that it should have by now. One of the reasons behind this setback was the absence of political leadership at the ministry for the past five months. The ministry will now work on extra programs and packages to target the Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign. All the programs will focus on promoting the nation's tourism in the global market while coordinating with international media for further promoting Nepal's tourism amid others.
Coordination with other globally distinguished tourism agencies and governments of different nations will take place in order to make Visit Nepal 2020 a grand success.
THT: The national flag carrier - Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) has a vital role in the country's promotion of tourism. However, it has been grappling financially for the past few years. How do you plan to NAC to step up?
Tourism Minister: We have no other options than to step up the strength of our national flag carrier. We need to address the predicaments it is currently facing as Nepal Airlines, and its services are directly linked to the identity of Nepal. Therefore, the initial step towards strengthening the national carrier will be to analyze in details the difficulties it has been facing in the recent past years.
A research panel will be formed by me, whose job will be to recognize issues hindering NAC's growth. Meantime, numerous studies have already been carried out concerning 'NAC's failure to operate as a competitive government bureau. The government will take necessary decisions concerning the operation modality of NAC based on past the findings of the report that will be prepared under my leadership.
We can either restructure NAC's administration or bring in a strategic partner or even appoint a management partner at the corporation according to recommendations and necessity. Any modality that will be adopted for NAC will have to be result-oriented, and this factor will be kept in mind throughout when making any decision. Nepal Airlines Corporation has been supported financially to date by the government, but this trend has to be put to a stop and make it self sustainable. Minister Bhattarai claimed that he was optimistic that the predicament at NAC would improve it's financial state rapidly along with improvement in its services and management.
THT: How do you intend to approach the European 'Union's embargo on Nepalese airlines?
Tourism Minister: It is unfortunate the way EU has continued to put an embargo on Nepalese airlines'. Nepal has maintained strong bilateral relations with countries in the EU. Additionally from, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, among other Eu nations are those Nepal has its embassy in for decades. Consequently, Nepal will continue to strengthen its relationship with EU nations, and one of the essential ways to do so would be by lifting the ICAO imposed ban on Nepalese airlines, allowing them to expand their flights to EU countries.
I will work hard towards addressing all the concerns and questions raised by the EU during my tenure in the aviation sector. Moreover, my importance will be to get the ban imposed by the EU lifted. Minister Bhattarai said, "Moreover, my emphasis will be to lift the ban imposed by the EU on Nepal airlines by addressing their pressing matters through discussions and consultations with the EU and other stakeholders.
THT: The completion deadline of Gautama Buddha International Airport (GBIA) has been extended repeatedly. How positive are you that the new completion deadline of the GBIA in December will be met? Moreover, the necessary groundwork related to new air routes and flight operations has not been finalized at the airport yet.
Minister Bhattarai: The government has already achieved a few theories regarding the administration modality of GBIA. While the government has delivered its idea of the operation of BGIA through a government agency irrespective of the country it belongs to; a few international airport handling operation companies have expressed their interests in operating GBIA. In the meantime, a committee has been established to study related modality for the operations of GBIA and to finalize at the earliest.
Once that is accomplished, we will work together with the related agencies to develop a business plan for GBIA. I intend to visit the site shortly to observe the progress and challenges of GBIA. We will finalize a work plan that ensures that the GBIA will start operations from the specified deadline of December. It will be achieved together with the project team, which includes the contractor.
Discussions are underway regarding flight routes, with Indian authorities to allow flight routes via Nepalgunj and Mahendranagar.
Likewise, I am also obligated to assuring that the building of Pokhara Regional International Airport is advanced.
THT: Meantime, construction of the planned Nijgadh International Airport (NIA) has run into controversy, mainly owing to environmental issues. What is your plan for this project?
Minister Bhattarai: Concerning the development of NIA, I had already communicated my opinion in Parliament very recently. We do not have other options for NIA, and it has to be constructed. Nevertheless, we have been highlighting the need for NIA since the past 24 years while we are still to start construction of the project. I have assumed the leadership position at the ministry on the 25th year. I want to ensure that the foundation stone of NIA will be laid this year.
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