After unrest, Nepal tries to regain safe, friendly image

The new prime minister declared the vital tourism industry a top priority.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Dianne Fokkert and her friend Remko Mars booked their month-long summer vacation to Nepal last spring, they had visions of steep mountains, lush tropical valleys, and beautiful, friendly Nepalis engaged in ancient, exotic livelihoods.

Then on June 1, after hearing about the massacre of the royal family, ensuing riots, and Nepal's six-year-old Maoist insurgency, they had different visions: tear gas, brickbats, and automatic-weapons fire. Yet something told them to stick with their travel plans.

After three weeks of trekking around the base of the Annapurna mountain range and visiting historic and religious sites in the Kathmandu Valley, they are glad they did.

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"We thought about it, and it didn't look very nice, but we had looked at our government's website and we said, 'If the government says it's OK, then it's OK," says Ms. Fokkert, a tall, blond native of Nyverdal, Netherlands. "Now we tell people to come to Nepal. Elsewhere you have to watch your bags all the time, but here, we had a friend leave his wallet on the counter, and the clerk came running up the street to give it back to him. Only in Nepal."

Such comments may cheer the hearts of tourism promoters here, but it's going to take more than positive anecdotes to overturn pervasive media images of instability. Nevertheless, doing so is paramount for this Himalayan kingdom, wedged between China and India, where tourism generates nearly 15 percent of foreign-currency earnings. The Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) put total earnings from tourism at $210 million for 1999.

But a string of negative incidents - from the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane two years ago, to the Maoist massacre of 70 policemen in the spring, to the mass murder of King Birendra and his family, to the fall of Nepal's ninth government in 11 years - persuaded many tourists to spend vacations elsewhere.

Now, with a new king, a new prime minister, and a government cease-fire announced last month, the 500,000 Nepalis who make their livings as porters, shopkeepers, waiters, craftsmen, and trek operators hope that the bad times are coming to a close.

"Until the royal massacre, nobody even knew there was a Maoist insurgency," says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, a weekly in the capital, Kathmandu. "The Maoists have never targeted foreign tourists. They know that the very destitute people who are their supporters make a living from trekkers."

But convincing tourists that Nepal is safe to visit, despite images of shuttered shops, riot police, and stone-throwing protesters outside the royal palace, will be a difficult task. That task falls to Aditya Baral, manager of public relations for the NTB, a government agency. He has the support of newly elected Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who declared tourism to be a top priority and earmarked an additional 30 million rupees ($400,000) for Mr. Baral's effort.

"We are trying to regroup," says Baral, who also stresses that "tourism has never been targeted by Maoists. Some districts are affected by the insurgency, but all the mountainous trekking areas are safe. We can guarantee it."

Of course, there's nothing more difficult in the public-relations business than countering a negative image, particularly if that image has been played on the evening news night after night. Statistically speaking, those images of violence have had a disastrous effect this year.

While the rainy monsoon months of June, July, and August are always slow for Western tourists, Indian tourists usually flood the country for months at a time. But this year, the number of Indian tourists arriving in June is down by 71 percent compared with last year, to a mere 4,101 hardy visitors.

With fewer tourists, some tour operators are getting frustrated.

"This is the worst that I've seen it since 1989," says Yubaraj Bhandari, owner of Yeti Encounter Travels, a trekking and mountaineering company in Kathmandu. "The government isn't taking any action against this thing. The media is projecting photographs of riots, and we are projecting our views. If you project Maoists on the front page every day, then people will definitely get a different view of Nepal than they had."

But not all tourists are staying away. Regula Lustenberger of Zurich, Switzerland, had just arrived in Nepal when the royal massacre occurred, and she briefly considered going home. But then, as a volunteer working with Tibetan refugees, she began to settle in. "I have two friends who are thinking of coming, and I tell them it is not the best time to see Nepal," she says. "I myself was not sure I could stay here. But now it's a better situation. I hope Nepal overcomes all this."

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