The Real New Nepal

Features Issue 203 Oct, 2018
Text by Ecs Staff

In a bygone era, there was no such thing as a hotel in Nepal. Travelers would stay in a home as they traversed through the Himalaya. The folklore tells that the house owner should look at the guest as either a gift from the gods, who brings extra income to the home; or as a test from the gods to see how you would treat them if they appeared as a stranger. In either case, you were to treat the guest as a god.

This history is partially the root of the “tea house” culture, where a trekker stays in a home-like establishment, with fresh cooked food, sourced from the owners’ land, and which has turned modern day Nepal into one of the friendliest and most welcoming destinations on earth. You see this reflected in the oldest hotel in Thamel, now 50 years old, called the Kathmandu Guest House, not Hotel Kathmandu.

It was also fitting for the type of tourist who came to Nepal to trek the rugged trails.  They were adventurous backpackers and mountaineers who were prepared to be away from the conveniences of modern life. Pilgrimages were arduous affairs, with lots of walking, sometimes for weeks on end. All who ventured to this part of the world were rewarded with pristine views of the most magnificent mountains on earth, free of roads, wires, and airplane noise.

Those days are virtually extinct. 

People returning to Nepal lament that the Annapurna trail has become a road (a.k.a. 4-wheel-drive trail) to Manang and Muktinath, at the same time that development has bought prosperity to the residents along the route. The tea houses en-route to Everest Base Camp look increasingly like upscale Western hotels, and the trail itself is an easier walk than the streets of Kathmandu. And, as if it was sent to herald a new era, Nepal has seen approximately 3000 new hotel rooms built since the 2015 earthquake, according to a leading daily (https://bit.ly/2M2BKJB).

While it is easy to focus on the physical changes to the landscape (earthquakes are very good at clearing out poorly constructed buildings), the real cause of all of these changes is the evolving demographic and demands of the tourist who comes to Nepal.

The earthquake put Nepal squarely in the global consciousness, and with it brought a new set of tourists. Now, over 40% are women, and the average age is nearly 44.  Roughly 60% come for the national parks (trekking, climbing, safari, etc.), but the rest come for the historic sites (23%), and to visit sites like Lumbini (18%) (According to statistics kept by the Nepal Tourism Department).

Climbing the highest most treacherous mountains on earth has become a vacation for Westerners measured in weeks, replete with oxygen canisters, and readymade meals.  Drugs replace rest days to acclimatize to the altitude. A short plane ride replaces weeks of trekking. And, today’s backpacker spends big money on brands like North Face to supply their gear. We almost universally agree that the underdeveloped airport, instead of being a quaint reminder of how far you have traveled, is increasingly an annoyance and frustration for arriving tourists.

The caravan of porters, with tents, food, and medicine, is replaced with flights, buses, 4-wheel vehicles.And you are often limited to 2 small bags weighing typically less than 30 kilos total. Now you are virtually assured a comfortable stay with hot showers and (at least reasonably) fresh beer. And, God forbid that anyone travel without an electronic device or not be able to use your smartphone. WiFi has all but replaced the telephone system, and everyone expects to communicate with friends and relatives back home nearly instantaneously.

In short, today’s tourist demands more during their stay in Nepal. 

Hoteliers are rising to the challenge. In starting my business here in Nepal, I see this reflected in the new hotels being constructed, with international brands like Marriott, Sheraton, Oyo, Argyle, etc. These companies are building in Nepal because there is demand for international-level service.

Post-earthquake, foreigners want your building to look like it is made from reinforced concrete, not traditional stone. Though there are still places you can experience the historical Nepali guest house, example: Kantipur Temple House, tea houses, and home stays are slowly (or not so slowly) giving way to an Airbnb experience for the same reason.

Backpacker lodges are becoming social venues, with their own bars and food outlets, as today’s tourist seeks out experiences, not just a bed to sleep in. Budget travelers can get their own room, with attached bath, coffee maker, and cable TV. It seems everyone has a charging station, and the multi-plug is standard. And, tourists now expect to find an international selection of food and beverages as they return from their dhal bhaat-fueled journey.

Quality and service are now king. Load-shedding is no longer an acceptable excuse for lack of hot water, and family-run now includes proper operating procedures and staff trained at an accredited hospitality school. Recycling is becoming more common than trash collection, and never forget that, today, feedback from your guests on sites such as Tripadvisor is nearly instantaneous.

My advice to Nepalis in the tourism sector is do everything you can to retain the true Nepali charm, never relinquish your soul for any reason, but don’t forget that Nepal is now a modern nation, and there is no going back. The demand from tourists is that you deliver to an international standard (and the bar keeps getting raised), but with Nepali warmth and charm, you are poised to exceed it, if you so choose. After all, if the gods choose to visit your establishment today, you would want them safe, satisfied, and above all else, you want their messages to get through.

Jim Jones is an American businessman operating in Nepal in the import and hospitality sectors.

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