Writer, Author, Consultant, New Zealand Honorary Consular, Tourism Specialist & Entrepreneur
“We have done so much work on VNY. I think they are completely right to stop the overseas promotions but keep the momentum going within Nepal and keep it focused on domestic market which is going to be our rescue strategy for the next few months. Tourism is a fragile business and you need to recognise that things won’t be completely in our control always like the coronavirus situation. The worst thing that can happen in this panic virus atmosphere is businesses closing down.”
Text: Ujeena Rana
With a strong passion for tourism and conservation, Lisa Choegyal is based in Kathmandu with a wide range of affiliations. She is the New Zealand Honorary Consul to Nepal since 2010. A specialist in planning, developing, operating and marketing pro-poor sustainable tourism, Lisa Choegyal has undertaken consultancy roles in multiple countries in a career spanning over 40 years in the sector.
Most of her international consultancy work is undertaken with Tourism Resource Consultants of Wellington, New Zealand. Her clients include governments, tourism boards, development agencies, NGOs, local communities and private sector operators. As examples of her Nepal work, Lisa was Team Leader of the ADB Ecotourism Project 2000-2001, DFID tourism specialist monitoring TRPAP 2001-2005, tourism consultant for the ADB SASEC programme 2004-2008, and for SNV Nepal prepared the Great Himalaya Trail development concept and programme design for DFID 2006-2010.
With a background in the private sector, Choegyal worked for over 20 years with the Tiger Mountain Group Nepal. She has worked on areas of environmental preservation, conservation awareness, community development, government and media liaison. She serves on a number of boards including Glacier Works Inc, Chance for Change, and International Trust for Nature Conservation, Rotary Mid-Town and Nepal Heritage Society. Choegyal is also a writer, photographer, editor of travel and guidebook publications, and widely experienced in film handling.
Choegyal arrived in Nepal in 1974 as a 23 year old backpacker on the road to discovering the Himalayas; little did she know that this would become her adopted home. She shares a deep bond with Nepal and is a strong proponent of the tourism industry here. Excerpts of a conversation with a multifaceted woman who has given to the country with deep affection and a sense of strong purpose:
What keeps you occupied currently?
I have been in Nepal for so long and I have involved myself in so many arenas but basically they are all connected with tourism and conservation. My background is in private sector in tourism, working with wildlife and trekking and adventure tourism. Since the mid-90s, I have been working as an independent consultant all over Asia Pacific based with a New Zealand company. And because of the New Zealand connection and because of my friendship with Edmund Hillary, I was honoured to be asked to be the New Zealand Honorary Consular. It has been 10 years now.
I have a company that does movies; helps to sort of make difficult, exciting movies happen like we did Dr. Strange a couple of years ago, and we did Everest. We do a lot of documentaries as well. Just helping to get coverage for Nepal for the country to have these high profile documentaries and feature movies shot here. And we got lots in the pipeline so we are really excited about what’s coming up. Hopefully we can still in this weird situation we are in.
And more recently, I have been writing. Before I was doing writing but mainly writing reports for my consulting work. But now I have the opportunity to write creatively with Nepali Times and other magazines. I started two years ago. Kunda Dixit asked me to do a column about tourism and conservation. I started off trying to highlight how much Nepal has achieved in the areas of eco-tourism and remote area tourism and adventure tourism, although we have many challenges and we had the insurgency and in between.
I started working in tourism here in 1974. And Nepal was a really fashionable place and got very high value tourists and had some really glamorous, interesting, new innovative products which are a bit short of these days. I was the Marketing Director of Tiger Tops and Mountain Travel which is the first trekking company for 25 years. Those were the real early days when we were putting in order to market Tiger Tops and trekking, we had to market Nepal and so we worked really closely with other operators. And in those days, travel agents sent people here, no internet, everyone came through bookings.
How has the internet changed things?
You got to say it is easier now. We have got social media and we have got so much improved communication. When I first came here, we didn’t even have fax, we had only cables and telex. We have all the communication but then it’s also much more competitive because everyone else has it too. And I think Nepal has really suffered after the insurgency. Quite understandably the tourism board and the operators just wanted to get bodies to bed and wanted to get people here. So we kind of got ourselves stuck in this low-budget reputation of being a low-budget destination. Whereas before the insurgency, we were a fashionable destination and we had all these glamourous celebrities. And so I don’t think it will be difficult to promote Nepal if we were a bit clever about improving our products and making a concerted effort to attract high-value, higher-paying segments. Why are we selling our beautiful mountains and amazing wildlife so cheap? We have fantastic resource. We forget that we have fantastic resource.
So you are saying that we are underselling Nepal?
I think we are selling ourselves too cheap. But it could be selling itself with a much broader spectrum of the market. In other words, attracting all kinds of different people. Not just the low-budget groups that we are getting from China and India. Of course, I am talking without the coronavirus. That’s why I was excited about VNY. It had the opportunity to bring new products and go to new areas of the country, expand new geographic regions of the country because at the moment we are stuck in the same old Everest, Annapurna and Langtang for trekking and Pokhara, Chitwan and of course Lumbini but Lumbini is a good example where we don’t have the product right. We are only attracting lower-income segment that come and go and don’t want to stay long and not enough to attract them. And the higher sort of pilgrims, the lot that I am interested in – Buddhists and pilgrimage tourism, we have done lots of studies on it. There are different sorts of pilgrims. But we are not attracting the ones who want to come and spend money and stay comfortably and stay a long time which we should be doing with the birthplace of Buddha. Just like Sagarmatha, that’s the real icon of this country.
How did tourism get to where we are?
I think it’s kind of understandable how we got here because of the insurgency. And even though it ended such a long time ago that now we can’t even use it as an excuse, but we never really established ourselves since then. And we had too much emphasis on Kathmandu and Pokhara, probably too many hotel rooms in Kathmandu and Pokhara and not enough hotel rooms outside and not enough interesting, innovative lodges and high-end camps. It does not have to be luxury in terms of marble and glass but it needs to be luxury in what high value visitors want, which is very good guiding and very good knowledge of birds or culture, whatever it is that the people are coming to see. And we have got great guides here. We sometimes underestimate what a very professional tourism industry we have got. But our current tourism operators, I believe, are not very inventive and not very innovative and they just prefer to sell the same old trekking areas. Of course, that’s one of the reasons I have worked a lot on the Great Himalaya Trail. The idea is to get people out east and west along the Himalayan range and bring benefits to the local communities in those remote areas.
From the development point of view, the idea is to get lots of businesses and get the local people involved and benefiting from tourism by having businesses along the trail. But there a lot of good reasons why people are not going to Dolpa and Kanchanjunga; it’s harder to get there, it’s harder to have food and porters and tea houses and support when you get there. And with the weather and the airstrips, there are real constraints. But I do think that there are operators who are pretty unimaginative the way they are selling the same old circuits.
Do you think that the tourism entrepreneurs are not taking enough risks?
They are not just inventive enough. It is difficult. Until you get these products, it is like the chicken and egg situation. These high-end products like Dwarika’s and Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge and there are some new ones coming up, the new Moksh in Jomsom, the new Begnas Hotel. I would like to see just maybe small luxury camps developing in new areas in the hills, like out there in Phaplu, there’s already a very nice house there called the Happy House. We just need to get some new areas and new activities. In order to attract different segments so that we are not just dependent on the Chinese. We are not the only destination that is guilty of this. New Zealand is really suffering because Chinese are their most important market after Australians and they are really suffering today. And Nepal is suffering today because we put so many of our eggs in the China basket and of course India too is important. Tourism is a fragile business and you need to recognise that things won’t be completely in our control like the coronavirus situation. Now, we should be looking very enthusiastically at domestic tourism. Big opportunity like during the insurgency. That’s how the businesses kept going. They relied on Nepali tourists and they are really great travelers these days, not like before. That’s a good opportunity.
Which is why I think it is good if Visit Nepal Year still has validity. I agree it is impossible to promote Nepal internationally in this atmosphere, makes no sense. But for the activities within and around Nepal, I think it can be very good for the industry to bring focus on how important the domestic market is to Nepal.
It is very hard for us to quantify as tourism analysts. It is very hard to count the Nepali tourists, it is very hard to count how much money they spend, and it is very hard to count where they go even because all the statistics and the entry fees and such stuff are all geared towards non-Nepali tourists. It is pretty hard to know but I think we should be taking domestic tourism seriously and it is an exciting opportunity that this horrible virus situation is creating for us all.
You see hope in this dire situation…
They are going to have to. They are going to have to stay afloat using the local market. It is a very unusual situation. Unprecedented. I think that this is much more damaging than the actual disease. Drastic economic effect that is going to hurt places like Nepal. Nepal is being pretty sensible about checking people coming from the virus-destinations. I think that is a better strategy than just closing your borders which is pretty drastic. It is better what we are doing. It is more sensible.
What did the government get right and wrong in the VNY promotion?
I personally think that the Nepal Tourism Board is a really important institution for tourism because it is where the public and the private sectors come together. In other destinations where you have successful tourism, it is because of the government and the business people working together which is not easy but in a country like Nepal where we got a very strong private sector and a rather under-resourced government, it is even more important for something like the tourism board to function and work.
Within an overall government promotion strategy, VNY could have had a really important role but it cannot be just an ad-hoc sort of one-year activity. It has to be part of the overall strategy to position Nepal as an adventure destination with all these new activities.
But it has been unfortunate that the media has criticised things like the skating in Gokyo. It seemed to me like a niche activity but those are kind of quite exciting, image-setting new ideas. Very dramatic the film and the photos of the skating. It is a pity. It is so easy to be negative. Everyone loves to be negative in Nepal. I like to be more positive. And those poor old yetis that did not work out that well. I don’t think those yetis are very attractive but it was a good idea and it was a Nepali artist who created it.
I have been very supportive of VNY actually. I think it’s a good opportunity. And now if we had just adapted it and kept it as a good opportunity for domestic tourism because it is a waste of energy and money to be promoting internationally in this climate until things come clear. May be things will come clear. Viruses do not live above 27 degrees centigrade. It is going to get hotter in Asia. It will be summer. Not so true in Europe. Viruses could go as quickly as it came. We have to be always ready. So we need to be have a spread of spectrum: the cheap ones and the budget ones, the backpackers, the cheap groups and then also the higher paying ones. They are the ones Nepal has lost. And the domestic segments and the pilgrims. Very important.
Where are we placed in sustainable tourism?
I think we are one of the best places. I would say ‘were’, probably were one of the best places in Asia that was managing sustainable tourism. We have such good natural resource management, conservation scene, we have got such a good wildlife and successful tiger conservation, rhinos, amazing number of birds and of course, cultural heritage is a big attraction. The rebuilding of the cultural heritage after the earthquake; that has really given a importance to the artisans and the craftsmen and master craftsmen who are very good at the construction of the historic temples and the buildings. We are trying to be proud of our local architecture. So Nepal has a good understanding of sustainable tourism. Over the years, there have been a lot of projects and assistance given to Nepal to try and help understand this from the UN, UNDP, from the British, SNV, the Dutch, Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, they have all concentrated on tourism.
The thing that worries me at the moment is with the new provincial governments who really are very keen to get involved in tourism but unless they can be capacitated and understand a bit more about how tourism works, they are going to get disappointed by having these initiatives they start all by themselves on a one off basis which may not actually work. But there is a lot of energy going around the country with people wanting to generate new destinations. I was just invited to a festival at Sumbh in April in some annual festival celebrating to promote tourism. Lots of new areas are getting involved in tourism but that needs to be done in a cohesive, systematic manner and it has to work together between the provincial level with the central government and with the local people and with the tourism industry.
It is not simple but there have been times when Nepal has been leading Asia in this. Chitwan is one of the best national parks in Asia and in those days Tiger Tops was considered one of the best wildlife experiences in Asia just as good as Africa. Now we really dropped back behind India, behind Bhutan even.
Is Nepal still a Shangri-la?
I think you can still find the Shangri-la. If you get up early in the morning, go to the bazaars late at night or visit the Durbar Square, I think you can still find the old magic in Nepal. But I think you just have to look a lot harder than you used to when I first came here. It’s interesting, just in the last month, I had a film director come here who had never come here before and a real world Asian expert on hotels – two completely different Westerners coming to Nepal having different angles. But both of them said the same thing to me. They just could not believe what an amazing place Nepal is as a destination.
When I was working looking after tourists and meeting tourists every day and organising trips, it was common for me to meet people who said it was the best holiday of their life. It’s been so wonderful in the 1980s and 1990s; it was common for people to rave about how amazing Nepal is. But in recent years, you don’t hear people raving about Nepal quite so and I am even horrified to meet people who come here and don’t like it at all. They don’t get it at all. But I think the magic is very much there to be found. We have extraordinary destinations compared to many of our neighbors. We have so much to offer. We just need to package it right and get the product right.
When I first walked around Annapurna in 1974, it was all trails and villages. It is just irresponsible of tour operators to send trekkers to walk around Annapurna given the fact that Annapurna trek is not the same now. Are we surprised they don’t like walking down a road? I went to Mustang last year and these poor trekkers were being made to walk along the horrible gravel riverbed when everyone else was shooting past in jeeps covering them with dust. It is just bad planning. It is not clever tourism operating. But if people don’t want to pay then what happens is that operators go down to the lowest common dominator and they just give the lowest level of service. It is real pity because our assets are our culture, our wildlife, our scenery. We deserve better.
If you were given the task to market Nepal, what would you categorically work on?
I would absolutely continue to do what VNY Secretariat is doing which is to emphasise its amazing nature, culture, adventure destinations because all these things we can deliver on. But I would really like to see a better spread of quality experiences and quality accommodations. I don’t necessarily mean expensive; I just mean really well done. Our most expensive, the Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, and we are one of the most expensive and we probably got the highest room rate but to be honest it is not that high compared to other destinations like $200-300 a night. We are up with Dwarika’s and Moksh. There are other places like Bhutan or where my son is managing in Cambodia which is a camp, a very remote wildlife camp which is over $1000 per person per night, and even $2000-3000 per room per night. Actually not even a room; it is a tent. A really glamorous tent; but it is a tent. I am not saying it has to be expensive or it has to be marble and glass. It just has to be stylish and deliver what people are wanting.
I would say, nature, culture, adventure, some new products and I would say facilitate new areas like giving subsidised airfares or upgrading airports.
Many people have already been to Pokhara and Chitwan and Kathmandu, they want to go somewhere new – east or west, into the mountains or into the Tarai. Make the travel easier. The airfares to the west are so expensive. I did a tourism plan for Western Nepal a couple of years ago and it is such a constraint – the cost of the airfare. But let’s not forget what an amazing place Nepal is.
Do you think VNY should be brought to complete standstill in view of the pandemic?
We have done so much work on VNY. I think they are completely right to stop the overseas promotions but keep the momentum going within Nepal and keep it focused on domestic market which is going to be our rescue strategy for the next few months. The other thing, it’s really hard in Nepal, because of the way the government thinks, not really because the government is short of money, but the way they think. In New Zealand, one of the first things the government did was give benefits to keep businesses going and to keep individuals going. The worst thing that can happen in this panic virus atmosphere is businesses closing down and then you really do get into recession. As you can see, the government and national banks everywhere are trying to lower interest rates and lower everything possible to get businesses going. I think what they should be doing here is giving tax breaks for all tourism companies.