Insight - While New Zealand faces a decline in tourists from China and India, Nepal is enticing them to come visit. RNZ's Lynn Freeman travelled to Nepal to find out what these two old friends, which share breathtaking landscapes and adrenaline-fuelled adventure, can learn from each other about tourism.
Travelling to Nepal in the heart of the off-peak monsoon season, and not planning to go anywhere near Mount Everest Base Camp, made me something of an unusual visitor. So did the fact that I was particularly interested in seeing the country's wildlife. Even though it rivals that of India, which makes a fortune from wildlife tourism, only about 4 to 5 percent of visitors to Nepal bother to travel to the national parks that are home to Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinos, elephants and leopards.
Most people know Nepal for its mountains, especially Mount Everest. But Nepal is much more than the Himalayas and Churiya Hills, and that's a key message of its big budget campaign to double tourist numbers to 2 million next year, especially those from neighbouring China and India.
Unlike New Zealand, where tourism is the top export earner, in Nepal tourism comes in at number four after remittances from ex-pats, agriculture and hydro-electricity. But the government there wants that to change. Nepal Tourism Board chief executive Deepak Joshi says tourism is seen as having the best potential for growth and for providing jobs.
What Nepal lacks in New Zealand's coastline and offshore islands, relatively good infrastructure and hobbits, it more than makes up for in being home to Mount Everest, its UNESCO World Heritage sites, many festivals, location and affordability.
Tourism old hand New Zealand, and relative newcomer Nepal both 'sell' a safe country for visitors and the image of a clean, green, pristine environment to the world. But they both risk a lot when that brand is tarnished.
And here lies Nepal's dilemma; It is defined by Mount Everest and the Himalayas. However the developing nation is at 'peak mountaineer'. International media coverage of deaths and overcrowding on Mount Everest, piles of rubbish and insurance scams in which climbers were pressured, sometimes by having their food spiked, to take costly flights down mountains, have tarnished Nepal's reputation.
Among the most recent incidents is a disturbing photograph from May this year, showing a massive jam of mountaineers queuing to get to the summit. It went viral and led to accusations of government greed and mismanagement. But even that will not be enough to stop the world's highest mountain being a magnet for climbers and trekkers.
The photograph appalled Ramil Adhikari, president of the Wellington Nepalese Society. While Nepal's government is promising to take action, Adhikarai wants New Zealand to help by offering to assist Nepal to bring in tighter regulations and improve safety on the mountains. He believes Nepal's government would listen to New Zealand authorities because of the two countries' long association.
But Nepal is ahead of New Zealand in increasing the number of visitors from neighbouring China and India. China is New Zealand's second largest tourism market after Australia, and people from both countries tend to be big spenders. However economic uncertainty means the boom here of the past 15-plus years or so, is plateauing. Our remoteness, once a drawcard, is now a downside due to growing consumer concern about long distance flights and climate change. New Zealand is also very expensive compared to countries like Nepal.
But there is debate within Nepal's tourism industry over the drive to double visitor numbers next year. New Zealand's honorary consul to Nepal, Lisa Choeygyl, who's had a long involvement in the tourism industry there, says the country should be looking to New Zealand's strategy of targeting high-end Chinese tourists. Quality, not quantity of international tourists, Choegyl believes, is vital for Nepal's future.
"It tends to be the most mature end of the market, meaning the most sophisticated who you're seeing in New Zealand, whereas we tend to get the more budget end of the market here in Nepal because it's easier to get to and so close," she says. "It's not considered to be so desirable by the more sophisticated, high end Chinese spenders."
"Last year we had a 25 percent increase in numbers, which was very laudable and out-paced all our projections, but at the same time we had a 23 percent decrease in daily spend. So I'm one of the great advocates for perhaps having fewer tourists paying more."
But Deepak Joshi from the Nepal Tourism Board disagrees, saying that would exclude many people who want to visit Nepal, but are on tight budgets.
The campaign isn't just about tourist numbers, he says, but about telling the world Nepal is more than its mountains, by promoting the country's rich cultural heritage and its wilderness areas as well.
However infrastructure is one of the challenges facing Nepal. New Zealand already struggles in tourist hotspots with roading, accommodation and water supplies. But in a developing nation like Nepal keeping roads open can be a trial. Vital networks are under constant threat from landslides, earthquakes and flooding.
The narrow main highways have long, two-lane stretches - often with sheer drops to one side, blind bends and steep climbs. A road trip that should take five hours from Kathmandu to tourist hotspot, Pokhara, can suddenly take almost twice as long because of road accidents and heavy traffic.
The capital, Kathmandu, is often brought to a virtual standstill by congestion and more remote villages can become inaccessible as roads disappear under tonnes of mud brought down by torrential rains. And roads, more often than not, are the only option for transport as there's no railway to speak of.
While on the back foot over transport, Nepal does well on providing accommodation, in fact there is an oversupply.
Sauraha is a small town that services the Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. It's famous for two rhinos that walk along its streets. It's quite something to see, even when they stop you from getting to your destination. But in July, it was almost a ghost town. Even a lodge famous for the birds in its gardens and is close to a river that's teeming with wildlife has hardly anyone staying.
Suman Ghmere, vice president of the Nepal Hotel Association, runs a hotel in Sauraha. The annual bed occupancy is about 40 percent during the low season, but from July to September, it's nearer 10 per cent. These are figures that would strike fear into the hearts of New Zealand hoteliers. Understandably Ghmere's members are desperate for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign to succeed.
So too is the homestay sector, which has been a huge success revitalising villages and supporting conservation. The idea behind this type of accommodation is to showcase the traditional way of life in Nepal, Villagers invest in separate accommodation and bathrooms and cook traditional meals for their guests.
In the south and west of Nepal the industry has been a life saver for a number of tiny villages. They had been abandoned due to being plagued by malaria-ridden mosquitoes, but are now safe to live in after money from tourism enabled massive eradication campaigns.
But is there a danger that the increased affluence and influence of outsiders could change, for the worse, the traditional way of life guests are being invited in to see?
World Wildlife programme manager Bharat Gotame works closely with community homestays and he is seeing investment in large, non-traditional homes. But Gotame says the possible downsides are being outweighed by the benefits to the communities. Children are now more likely to be well-educated and women are now able to get interest-free loans to start up businesses, increasing families well being.
Income from overseas visitors is now also driving more domestic tourism. "Don't leave home til you've seen the country", once New Zealand's tourist industry mantra, now applies to Nepal. Its tourism board says substantial numbers of locals are now wanting to travel around their own country. But that’s putting pressure on the developing nation's already struggling infrastructure, and pitting local and international tourists against each other for travel, accommodation, and the desire to experience wilderness areas without the crowds and increasing the need to find solutions.
For many involved in showcasing Nepal to the world, the slow pace of resolving many of these issues is frustrating. Those desperate for urgent action included Tashi Tenzing, the grandson of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who famously conquered Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, forging that special bond between Nepal and New Zealand. Tashi Tenzing now caters for high end international visitors to Mount Everest and elsewhere around the country he loves.
He argues poor infrastructure is holding Nepal back from realising its full tourism potential and believes that tourism has the power to bring back some of the many thousands of Nepalese who've moved overseas for tourism jobs in the Middle East, Australia and America.
He says Nepal is already on people's bucket lists, and it should look to New Zealand to see how tourism is done well to do more to capitalise on what makes his country unique.
Lynn Freeman's trip to Nepal was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation