President of Vaidya’s Organization of Industries and Trading Houses (VOITH), Suraj Vaidya is an entrepreneur, business leader and an advocate for economic growth and reform in Nepal. He was the President of Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) and SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry. On November 2, Vaidya was announced as the National Coordinator for Visit Nepal 2020 tourism promotional campaign.
In an interview with Dibesh Dangol of B360, Suraj Vaidya talks about his role as the National Coordinator, plans and projects he is keen to implement, and vision to make Visit Nepal 2020 a success.
You have been appointed the National Coordinator for Visit Nepal 2020.What does the role assigned to you by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation entail?
My discussion with the minister and the concerned authorities has been very forthcoming. All of us recognise the importance of tourism, its impact on the people of Nepal, and the potential of economic growth through this sector. Right now, working with the minister is a privilege. He is young, energetic and wants to do a lot in the field of culture, tourism and civil aviation. He has given me a free hand in whatever needs to be done to achieve the target of bringing in two million tourists, increasing the expenditure from 40 dollars to 62 dollars, and opening up new destinations for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign. For the same, I need to work with people in investment sectors. I believe the vision to put Nepal as the premium destination in the entire South Asia is attainable.
Is the target of two million achievable?
I think the number – two million – is being hyped a lot. We have to understand that Nepal is very unique in terms of tourism and we have ample capacity to promote it. We understand, in a realistic matter, that we do have problems in our international airport which needs to be upgraded. Reaching two million is one purpose, but to be able to attract tourists who will stay for a longer period, spend more money in Nepal, and contribute to Nepal’s economy are more important to me.
Very frankly, there is a huge misunderstanding about tourist arrival in Nepal. Normally, tourists who come via air to Nepal are the ones we have on our official records. But scores of tourists from India and China travel to Nepal via land. Anyone that enters into Nepal either via roadways or airways are tourists. We are taking into consideration air travel tourists as a target of the two million.
Talking about plans and procedures we are making and taking to achieve the figure, firstly, I am very proud and happy that Gautam Buddha International Airport will be in operation by 2020. We are already in talks with international airlines that are flying to Nepal and other airlines also, to try and use the airport and target migrant workers because most of them are from province 2 and 5. Also, since the airport is close to Lumbini, the birth place of Gautam Buddha, tourists coming to Nepal to specifically visit Lumbini and western Nepal can directly fly to Gautam Buddha International Airport. If that happens, TIA, probably will have 40% less movement which will make it a lot easier for us to bring in more airlines and also improve the facilities at TIA.
We have plans and targets to improve the quality of welcome centres in the border areas specifically for tourists visiting Lumbini, Janakpur and other culturally important places. Such welcome centres will also be targeted for people visiting Bhairahawa whether it is for casinos, adventure or leisure.
What are the challenges you are likely to face as National Coordinator for Visit Nepal 2020?
More than challenges, it is about how to convert these challenges into opportunities so that more Nepalis will benefit from tourism. One of the challenges that I have is getting Nepalis to be more positive. If we look at the tourism products that we have, we are blessed with naturally beautiful tourist destinations. It’s not just Mt. Everest and Lumbini, I am talking about the amazing natural products that we have from the east to the west of Nepal. My biggest challenge is for Nepalis to appreciate what we have in Nepal. The current situation is probably because we, Nepalis, expect too much of ourselves. We are, at times, quite negative in our approach.
One of my first campaigns for the next two months will be to prepare Nepalis to receive the two million plus visitors, encourage them to be part of 2020 and take the campaign as a national pride program, and to make them see the benefits of it. It is not only for hoteliers, trekking companies and travellers, but it is for every Nepali to be able to welcome the two million plus tourists.
On your Twitter account, on November 21, you posted a picture of a crowded TIA’s departure terminal in which a tourist was showing her passport and ticket to the security in order to check-in and captioned it, “Every guest that comes to Nepal must have a positive “Lifetime Experience”. This is all about management and we can make a difference.” What are the areas of improvement you are referring to?
I like to take these challenges and make something amazing. We all know we can make that change and my first focus has been the airport. It is good that the government of Nepal, especially the Ministry of Tourism, the Secretary of tourism and everybody else involved in tourism, are keen to improve the infrastructure. The airport at this stage is in a terrible stage. It’s very difficult for people to come in. Therefore, my first step is to improve and give a wow factor for ‘lifetime experiences’ starting at the airport itself.
We may laugh about it now, but we are trying to convert our airport to a boutique airport. How are we going to do this is? We are trying to improve some of the simple things like making it more convenient for tourists to arrive into the airport, have a good experience passing through the immigration, have a better baggage collection experience and also while moving out to the taxis. Some changes can already be seen at the airport. The cars that usually used to be parked on top have moved down. We will have the arrival halls ready in the next six months which will create less congestion. We hope we could better and create simple systems for the taxis.
Many of the problems that I see in the airport do not need huge investments. It is about simplifying and modernising the procedures in immigration like to have electronic visa and electronic payment systems. It is to have more trained human resources in the airport itself.
What is beautiful about the airport is that it is a very beautifully designed airport. So, we probably just need to change a few things at the airport, like the signages, toilets, training immigration officers and better baggage handling. These are very doable and you’ll see that change coming in the next eight months. Apart from improving our immigration system and security procedures, TIA needs to have more Nepali artefacts at the airport so that people actually feel that they are a part of a living heritage.
From the time of stepping out of the aircraft to getting out of the airport, it shouldn’t take more than 30 -45 minutes. These are the things we are working at.
Probably with the help of CAAN, the Home Ministry and concerned ministries operating at the airport, we will be able to get some younger people to usher and guide tourists, and have people who can speak different foreign languages.We are working as a team with the airport authorities on this matter. The campaign doesn’t rely on the success of one single person or sector. Every ministry will be working as a team, and I think we have all agreed that we cannot fail.
Visit Nepal 2020 is important because the campaign is going to make the world realise that Nepal is truly changing and moving forward. We need to show a better reaction to the campaign, take this campaign as a stepping stone to future tourism campaigns, and make tourism not a 3% contributor to the GDP, but probably aim for 12-20%.
What are the other infrastructures that will be addressed?
Right now roads are improving in the Kathmandu valley. There are more water tanks cleaning the roads. Firstly, we need to get the dust out of the air. We need to work with the municipality and ministry of physical planning. It is about making our cities cleaner! Second, I think the Melamchi Water Project is now coming to a close due to which there are several potholes in the roads and streets. We want to work with the Ministry of Physical Planning to make sure that these potholes are mended and the roads inside the valley and streets are in good condition.
Especially, it is more important that the tourist roads are completed on time. Right now, the roads to Nagarkot and Shivapuri are in terrible condition. Those are the areas we are focusing on. We are hopeful that the drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini will be more pleasant. These are some areas we are working on with urgency and I think these are also achievable because the government does have the budget and the government just needs to keep things rolling. We have spoken with the concerned ministries regarding this matter.
We are also happy that the PM KP Oli is supportive of Visit Nepal 2020 campaign. Under his leadership, we need to coordinate with different ministries to have works completed no later than June 2019.
What are some new and interesting plans for Visit Nepal 2020?
Nepal is lacking new investment in the tourism sector. We need to create new events, destinations for the campaign, and not just focus on the numbers. The private sector has been investing. There are about 2,000 rooms coming up in Kathmandu valley alone which are all the investment of the private sector. There are also investments in Pokhara with new hotels and home-stays.
We need to be creative and give much more to tourists besides the stay aspect. It’s the experience we should be offering. New trekking routes are being made; entertaining events for tourists have to be created; creating the experiences of various villages and foods are necessary; and making the traditional heritages and cultures more festive are needed. These are some of the things we are working on.
We are also working on some crazy ideas like having ice hockey championship at Gokyo Lake in the winter.
In terms of religion, people know Nepal for places like Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, Janaki Temple or Lumbini, but we also have many culturally important sites which we haven’t even begun to address and promote from far east to far west. We are planning a new religious walk, known as Shiva Shakti Walk, from east to west and can even go beyond Nepal to Mansarovar.
We are also trying to request followers of Buddhism to celebrate Buddha Jayanti in Lumbini. If we can do that, probably this will be an international event every year and can attract millions of people. It is possible because about 12 million people travel on pilgrimage to Mecca, the hottest and driest place in the world. So, if we can attract Buddhist followers for such an event, it would be a huge achievement.
We are also looking at having a Himalayan Car Rally. There are a lot of new ideas we are looking into including night markets or ‘Kathmandu by Night’. If the durbar squares can be lit up beautifully at night and have local foods being served and handicrafts being sold, it does wonders for both tourists and Nepalis. Firstly, traffic is minimal at night due to which tourists can enjoy the environment and create a different experience for them. As for us, we can make tourists enjoy beyond the daytime activities and have something extra to offer the tourists at night. This is something we want to ‘make it happen’ in Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.
Does the industrial sector see the campaign as an opportunity to promote their products or is VNY 2020 limited to the tourism industry?
It is very important that all sectors get promoted through the campaign. Tourism sector touches every other sector. If we get hotels to make special Nepali dishes and serve them in hotels and restaurants, culinary tourism will prosper due to which the producer and farmers can all be benefited. Hotel Association of Nepal has been working on this idea. I am stating this as an example because one of the main problems in many of our hotels and restaurants is lack of authentic Nepali food and lack of diversity in what we can offer.
Similarly with handicrafts, we need to revive the industry and produce our local arts and crafts. My challenge is to not only to make people involved or invested in tourism excited about Visit Nepal 2020 campaign, but also make the general public and other sectors understand and take ownership of the campaign.
What different approaches have been taken in Visit Nepal 2020 campaign compared to those in 1998 and 2011?
The past Visit Nepal campaigns have been very well organised. The leadership shown by Karna Shakya in 1998 and Yogendra Shakya in 2011 along with then ministers and the entire team has held success in their own way. I would like to build on to their foundations to make it better. They have done a great job. If you remember, 2011 campaign was hosted at a very difficult time. It was the time when the country was having constant political problems, we didn’t have a stable government, and strikes all the time. In spite of these obstacles, people involved with 2011 campaign did a commendable job.
Now, we have a stable government so I have an advantage to be able to work on different things in terms of creating investment. We will be having a Tourism Investment Summit in 2019 in which we hope to bring in projects from all seven provinces. We are asking the provincial governments to submit two projects each. Our commitment to the provinces is that we will bring in investors to provide the basic requirements. We want to get tourism beyond Kathmandu to other beautiful destinations like Rara, Khaptad, Baitadi, Arun Valley, etc.
If we can improve our transport system which is fundamental for tourism have some good quality electric vehicles at the airport, or buses catering only to tourists like in Europe, educating our taxi drivers not over charge and be more courteous to tourists… these are all gaps we want to rectify.
There is a lot to do. We are also strongly requesting the government to open up two more regional airports in far-west and far-east of Nepal. Unless the airports are opened, destinations in such areas will not be appreciated by tourists.
During this campaign, it is important to create infrastructure, human resources, and link tourism with Nepali citizens for the coming generations to build on for future Visit Nepal campaigns. With a positive mindset to move forward, a lot can be achieved.