As Tibet restricts Indian pilgrims, Nepal sees a boom

The holy travel season begins in April and lasts until October. Mid-June to early September is monsoon season in Tibet, but it is the peak season and the most expensive period to travel there.

Sangam Prasain

Sangam Prasain

The Kathmandu Post


Scenic view of Annapurna, Narchyang, Nepal. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

December 7, 2023

KATHMANDU – Nepal welcomed an all-time high of Indian visitors.

The reason: China.

As the Tibetan authorities denied access to nearly 50,000 Indian pilgrims who had booked the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, they were forced to visit Nepal’s holy places like Muktinath and Lumbini on the same package, at least three tour operators dealing with the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra package, told the Post.

The holy travel season begins in April and lasts until October. Mid-June to early September is monsoon season in Tibet, but it is the peak season and the most expensive period to travel there.

According to the latest data released by the Nepal Tourism Board, the country’s tourism promotional body, Nepal received 287,244 Indian tourists as of November, the highest number on record, who came to Nepal via air transport.

Indian visitors entering Nepal through the surface routes are not counted as tourists.

In 2019, according to the government’s statistics, the country had received 254,150 Indian travellers.

“We estimate that the number of Indian visitors will surpass 300,000 by the end of this year,” said Mani Raj Lamichhane, spokesperson at the board.

“This is an encouraging sign. Nepal could see a wave of Indian travellers in the coming years.”

According to him, the rise in Indian numbers was due to the pilgrimage draw. “Nowadays, Muktinath attracts hordes of Indian visitors.”

Muktinath, which was already popular among Chinese visitors, became popular among Indian visitors after, on May 12, 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prayed at Nepal’s iconic Muktinath temple.

The temple is regarded as sacred by both Hindus and Buddhists.

Muktinath had started to gain popularity among Indian visitors, but the Covid pandemic put the brakes on it.

“Indians are coming back again,” said Lamichhane.

The board’s data shows that the peak influx of Indian visitors was recorded in June when 38,845 Indians visited Nepal. In May, the number was 36,575.

These are the months for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra.

“There were massive bookings, nearly 50,000, from Indian travellers for the yatra this year, but Chinese authorities denied access to them,” said Basu Adhikari, managing director of Touch Kailash Travel and Treks.

“All foreigners were allowed to visit one of the most sacred journeys for devotees, except Indians.”

“Many Indians had booked the packages, and for most of them, there was no refund option, particularly the air tickets. So they decided to visit Nepal’s holy places,” said Adhikari. “This could be one of the key reasons behind the surge in Indian travellers.”

Kailash Manasarovar Yatra is one of the most lucrative tour packages for Nepali tour operators.

The annual pilgrimage season would be a boom time for the tourism industry, and the government too would see an increased revenue from taxes. The religious travellers would fill the hotels and restaurants, and keep travel agents, airlines, guides and porters busy.

The reopening of the northern border in 2023, after three years, brought cheer to the tourism industry at a time when the country is grappling with a recession.

According to travel traders, more than 20,000 Indian pilgrims travelled to the sacred mountain and lake in China via Nepal in 2018.

In 2019, the number rose sharply to nearly 30,000. Then Covid came as a spoiler, and China closed the border in January 2020.

Nepali tour operators say they were inundated with bookings from Indian pilgrims as the destination was reopened after three years.

Nepal has been putting its hopes on tourism to revive the moribund economy. But pilgrims wanting to visit the world’s fastest-growing major economy have to face many hassles.

Beijing slapped so many restrictions making travel difficult, particularly for Indian travellers, tour operators say.

Hari Prasad Sharma Gaire, president of the Hotel Association of Nepal, Gandaki Province Chapter, said, “The number of Indian tourists is encouraging in Pokhara.” “Hotel occupancy in Pokhara has revived to some extent due to the rise in Indian tourists. The occupancy rate has reached 50 percent.”

According to Gaire, the majority of Indians are coming to Pokhara to visit Muktinath.

“Muktinath has been drawing Indians after Modi’s visit.”

Like the restrictions in Tibet, Nepali tour operators say the Nepal government’s policy to attract Indian visitors is also restrictive.

“Our policy doesn’t allow Indians to carry more than IRs25,000 per person. On the other hand, Indian currency over IRs100 is banned in Nepal,” said Gaire.

In December 2018, the Nepal government banned all Indian notes above the denomination of IRs100.

“Many policies are discouraging Indian tourists from visiting Nepal. Nepal wants to earn money from tourism, but at the same time it has many restrictive policies,” said Gaire.

Nepal has constructed an international airport, funded by China, in Pokhara and opened the facility in January. But still, the new airport has not attracted international flights.

Tourism entrepreneurs say that billions of tax money has been invested to construct the airport, but the Nepal government has no plans to make it a commercial success.

Prices for a 14-day Kailash Manasarovar Yatra package by land route start at IRs185,000 per person.

Travellers flying from Nepalgunj to Simikot and onward to Hilsa and then journeying overland to Kailash Mansarovar pay IRs225,000 each.

A tour package involving flying from Kathmandu to Lhasa costs IRs320,000 for Indians and $4,000 for other tourists.

The Kathmandu-Lhasa service, the only international gateway to Lhasa, has not resumed.

“We are not sure about the new policy Beijing will introduce for Indian travellers in the next year. It will be known in January,” said Adhikari.

There are five routes to Mt Kailash and Lake Manasarovar.

One is the disputed Lipulek Pass. India has been opening the track for the link road for the Manasarovar Yatra from Dharchula to Lipulek, known as the Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra Route.

Nathula in Sikkim, India is another. However, these routes are the longest and most expensive. It takes nearly three weeks to reach the holy place using these routes, and the trip is difficult too.

Moreover, only a few pilgrims use these routes as they need to obtain a special permit from the Indian government.

Nepal offers three routes to Kailash Mansarovar through the Tatopani and Rasuwagadhi border points. After the Chinese government closed these border points, Nepalgunj became the key gateway.

The Nepalgunj-Simikot-Hilsa-Mansarovar route is the shortest, and the itinerary is affordable and easy. Travellers usually fly from Nepalgunj to Simikot by fixed-wing aircraft and then take a helicopter to Hilsa on the border with Tibet, China.

As Nepalgunj has become a major gateway, more than a dozen luxury hotels have sprung up here to cater to Indian visitors.

After crossing Karnali, pilgrims are taken by motor vehicles to China.

Due to the high altitude, pilgrims acclimatise for one to two days in Purang, also known as Taklakot—the first city in Tibet. Lake Manasarovar lies at an elevation of 4,556 metres.

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