One of the country’s tourism veterans shares his vision of green, high-value cultural tourism.
Kantipur Temple House, down a small alley in Jyatha, is a place I’ve driven past over the years but never entered, so I wasn’t prepared for the little gem I discovered when I walked inside. Or rather, I should say, a collection of sparkling wonders, because the more I looked, the more there was to discover. First things first, though. I was there to speak with Bharat Basnet, whom I had met before, though at his other venture, Bhojan Griha, a favorite for upscale traditional Nepali cuisine where I often bring visitors, especially when they only have a short time in Nepal. Kantipur Temple House is another place of his—a combination of business and passion—and is an attempt to roll as many eco-friendly and local methods and products into a hotel as possible. For instance, all of the tiles used inside the hotel are traditionally and beautifully made, copied from the Malla period. In the bathrooms, there are no plastic bags in the trash bins, rather, they are lined with newspapers. Fifty percent of their electricity comes from solar power. If anything that is needed for running the hotel can be purchased locally made, that’s what it is. As we sat in the sun-filled garden enjoying a surprisingly authentic Thai lunch, I was curious to learn more.
Bharat Basnet has been working in tourism for 40 years, since 1979, though this place opened in 1988. He first worked in other travel companies to learn the ropes of the industry, then traveled outside the country, before coming back to start his own business. Along the way, he’s learned a lot and formed a lot of opinions of what does and doesn’t work here, and what he feels should be done better.
“I think a country like Nepal should never think about mass tourism; it is not going to help, because for the masses you also have to invest in different kinds of infrastructure, which the country is not able to afford. Nepal is a small country, mountains are the major attraction, hills, national parks, and there you can’t bring masses. It depends on the size of the country, what you really are going to profit from, what resources you have,” he explains. Mass tourism, he believes comes at a large cost—that of nature, environment, and culture.
Having personally seen the impact that hordes of visitors have had on some parts of Europe, I can’t help but agree. Tourism can help a country while changing the dynamic that makes people want to visit it in the first place.
“Nepal should go for quality,” Basnet continues. “When you talk about quality, people often think quality means very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be, you just have to make it so you will not allow everyone at the same time. A little more expensive, but that means you have to improve the infrastructure—if you want to charge more, you have to improve the infrastructure.”
“My first job was in 1979 with a very large tour company here called Yeti Travels, which I think was one of the single largest travel companies in the region. They were handling about 45-50,000 tourists a year, and at that time logistics was very difficult, with only one airline in the country, so it was tough, but they managed to offer services of international standard,” he tells me, before beginning to list some examples: Tiger Tops in Chitwan, where he also worked for a time, the unique Everest View Hotel, located at the highest point in the world that opened in the 70s, Fishtail lodge in Pokhara. “These are very iconic unique properties that they had at the time, so this was where most of the rich people would come—staying in Kathmandu a few nights, sightseeing in the valley, then very different and not crowded like it is today, before going on to Pokhara and Chitwan. I started my own company in 1988, and after my travels to Germany, the U.S., and other countries, I said that Nepal should remain an elusive, exclusive destination, it should be a high-end destination and we should not look for mass tourism; it’s how much do you make, not how many people you can bring.”
I mention the oft-repeated target tourism goals.
“They always talk about numbers. When they were announcing Visit Nepal ’98, their target was one million, but I said you have to have infrastructure to increase the number of travelers; so, I have always said let’s not go for numbers, but how much is the country making in terms of economy, creating employment, in terms of creating value. If every customer who visits returns very satisfied and with happiness, they will bring more travelers of the same kind. People go where it’s nice, clean, and there’s character, old charm, friendly people—less polluted, where you can freely walk.”
Basnet has also lobbied the government, saying that using traditional architecture to be unique from the rest of the world and avoiding glass and high-rise buildings is the way to go.
“That’s why I decided to open this [Kantiupur Temple House] and build it like a temple; many people ask, ‘Was it a temple, did you renovate it? It looks as if it’s been there for a long time.’ But no, it’s fresh, just 20 years old. If we could just have a building code, where if you want to build a hotel, the facade would be like this, but inside you can have all the comfort and luxury, then you would be creating a new town of charm,” he says, and also, “at least one or two trees must be there, some green grass must be there.”
Before long, the talk of buildings turns to earthquake reconstruction. And, like many other things, particularly pertaining to Nepal’s cultural heritage, Bharat Basnet has some definite opinions.
“Modern engineers, they obviously learned from modern engineers, because no one can teach them the architecture of the past. The buildings which were built here in the valley, some were damaged, because they were not maintained; those that were maintained, they remain. Now, the modern engineers think you cannot have anything with mud mortar, that it has to be all concrete, steel, and this is the controversy going on. What we need to understand is, this architecture which we today call heritage, because they have aged over the years and they are something different than modern architecture, they stood for long years, and over the years—there were earthquakes, rain and sun. Everything has a life; so if you are maintaining it like a body, well, if you don’t maintain it, it ages earlier than it should. Small things can hit us very badly. So, similarly, these heritage sites are supposed to be continuously restored, renovated over time, and they were not doing it. They have let the rain damage it, the sun hit it, so they become weaker, with so many different elements. So, obviously, the earthquake caused damage, but it doesn’t mean that the material that they used is bad; it stood for such a long period, why not today? I am of the opinion that for the old heritage sites, we have to use old building materials and knowledge, but you have to have the knowledge.”
But, as we all know, the fine artists and skilled workers don’t tend to be businessmen and those that apply for reconstruction contracts and tenders. However, Basnet believes that working together is possible, that there is a way for the practical and creative restoration efforts to overlap and complement each other.
“It’s like making a fine ornament, a fine painting; can you calculate how much it will cost? It can take days and months. These are artists—not making buildings, these are works of art, and you have to let them take their time. It can take longer than we expect, but it doesn’t matter; the travelers will come and see how they work. This is how we should sell our tourism; not, ‘It’s so sad that the earthquake has caused damage….no you can’t see it,’ but rather, ‘Now you can see that we still have people to make it.’ ”
It’s a simple but excellent idea; I know that I love to see artists at work, and capitalizing on that, using reconstruction as a way to showcase the country’s many skilled artisans just seems like a genius plan.
“For sustainability, tourism is one very important aspect, but if the money that comes from tourism just flushes out, then it is not really helping the country, it doesn’t sustain. It has to recharge the economy of the lower level of people, and that means tourism should use maximum local products.” Bharat Basnet is emphatic on this, and he practices what he preaches: locally made brass sinks; “Even if it’s a little more expensive, the value is much higher.” It’s attractive, for sure, and makes even a small thing like a bathroom uniquely Nepali. And, in line with his philosophy, sourcing locally has a positive trickle-down effect on the economy, with as much of the money staying here as possible. “If many people do that, then there would be more jobs in the country, so people wouldn’t have to go to the Middle East to work under such harsh conditions. Tourism has a lot of value chain, like handicrafts, and also organic products, herbal, painting, art; it can benefit multiple sectors. Nepal has a lot of potential.”
He also believes in going local when it comes to dress. He is known for wearing the daura-suruwal, but I hadn’t realized that all his clothing is hand-woven, made in Nepal. “I am selling tourism, I am selling Nepal, and I said to myself, if I go to an international fair, promoting Nepal, and I go in Western attire, am I really representing Nepal? I decided to completely change my attire, so I only wear hand-woven, hand-loomed clothing, and have for almost 25 years now.”