KATHMANDU: Tourism entrepreneurs on Thursday warned that adventure seekers may give the go-by to the popular jungle safari destination of Chitwan due to heightened road safety issues and the torture of travelling over the Narayanghat-Muglin highway.
The so-called golden triangle tour consisting of Chitwan, Pokhara and Lumbini is a popular circuit among sightseers in Nepal, and travel traders are worried that one of the components could be tossed out of tour packages due to the disastrous condition of the highway linking the destination.
Potential tourists are not responding to Chitwan packages at any international travel mart, and it has raised concerns that the safari destination might lose its competitiveness.
Last Monday, two people were killed by a rockslide on the Narayanghat-Muglin road where work has been going on since June 2015 to widen it to two lanes.
“Hotel bookings are being cancelled at an alarming rate,” said Suman Ghimire, president of Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) Chitwan Chapter.
“During the peak summer tourist season, occupancy at hotels and luxury resorts has nosedived to 40 percent and it is still going down. The situation is alarming. We don’t see any sign of the road upgradation work being completed even after two years, going by the pace of progress.”
Prakash Shrestha, managing director of Machan Wildlife Resort, said tourists were mainly concerned by the road condition as it takes at least 12 hours to reach Chitwan from Kathmandu when it used to take 5 hours previously. “Now the key issue is safety.”
Visitors who fly there may have to spend up to $200 per person including the airport transfer charge, he said. The normal airfare for a foreign visitor is $109 one way. Nepalis are charged Rs3,500. “If visitors choose to fly, it is highly expensive. If they go overland, it is risky and exhausting,” he said. “Tourists have wisely started avoiding Chitwan.”
Entrepreneurs are worried because once a destination is removed from tour packages, it may take a long time for it to be reinstated.
Hoteliers, tour and travel agencies and airline operators from Chitwan and Kathmandu came together on Thursday to find a solution to the risk of Chitwan being dropped from tourist itineraries.
Ghimire said that hotels and resorts had agreed to slash room rates by 25 percent and launch attractive tour packages to woo back visitors. They urged airlines to reconsider airfares at least for foreigners. Besides, airlines need to increase their frequency to cater to air travel demand.
Hoteliers said that operating flights between Chitwan and Pokhara could be an option to provide another access route. Traditionally, trekkers returning from the Annapurna Circuit continue on to Chitwan to enjoy a jungle safari.
Rupesh Joshi, director of sales and marketing of Buddha Air, said more than 12 flights now connect Bharatpur airport, the gateway to Chitwan. Before the road upgradation, there were hardly three flights a day. More than 500 seats to the destination are produced daily.
“Buddha can operate 10 flights daily to Bharatpur if demand grows.” Joshi said that airlines could operate Bharatpur-Pokhara flights if travellers are guaranteed, but further discussions would be needed to cut airfares.
Airlines said that the 1,158-metre runway at Bharatpur airport could not accommodate 72-seater aircraft like the ATR 72.
Joshi said that air traffic at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu would become a major problem if frequency was increased. “Already, domestic airlines have to face long delays due to extreme congestion,” he said. “If Bharatpur airport can be equipped with night landing facilities, the congestion can be reduced to some extent.”
Meghauli Serai Jungle Lodge
– By Sangam Prasain for TKP