The international air traffic forecast for 2011-2015 shows a growth of 6.9 per cent within the Asia-Pacific region, 5.8 per cent for Europe to Asia and 6.6 per cent for the Middle East to Asia. The total passenger tariff on the international route is expected to grow by 5.7 per cent. More than 90 per cent of all international travellers enter Nepal by air, and the operation of flights to and from Nepal by many foreign airlines with increased frequency suggests more prospects for the tourism industry of the country. In spite of this, Nepalese carriers have not been able to cash in on this opportunity due to an aircraft crunch.
Can anyone imagine the national carrier of a country without aircraft? Never. But it has happened in Nepal while RA’s two aged Boeing 757s were under maintenance. We all know an official carrier in every country provides the leadership in the field of air transportation. But Nepal’s case is typical in many respects. Its national carrier - Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) - is helpless compared to many other foreign carriers.
How did this happen? It is easy to blame others. People criticise without knowing the reality and compare the NAC with Bangladesh Biman and Thai Airways. Due to multiple constraints and limitations, including resources and capacity constraints, the NAC can’t go far abroad like these airlines. Government interference on decision-making and political parties’ interest while acquiring new aircraft are also equally responsible. Obviously, policymakers are also liable for the same.
In view of the importance of tourism to the Nepalese economy, the state-run airline is a key element in the country’s economic growth. As a national flag carrier, the NAC has important landing rights, but at the moment does not have the aircraft to serve these routes. Nepal, thus, is facing an acute shortage of air seats. Due to this, a number of prospective foreign visitors are unable to visit Nepal, and many Nepalese outbound travellers and labourers are facing inconvenience. The labourers are also compelled to pay extremely high fares in the absence of Nepali aircraft.
Furthermore, the role of the national carrier is immense and inevitable in promoting tourism, though it is struggling to survive. All of the successive governments made commitments to strengthen the NAC by expanding its fleet, including the exercises recently made for obtaining some aircraft from China. Unfortunately, they wasted time just forming committees. The NAC was never ever allowed to fully spread its wings. It has seen the birth of endless taskforces that have produced volumes of reports, with suggestions ranging from the need of additional aircraft to privatising the airlines.
None of these grandiose plans have managed to move from the paper that they were written on. The continued and calculated interference by the bureaucracy does not help achieve fast growth in this competitive air market. The shortage of aircraft with the NAC still stands as a major impediment to letting the tourism industry thrive.
As a tourist destination, Nepal has to compete with many other destinations at the regional and international level. But the country has become one of the most expensive destinations in the entire South Asian region, owing to low supply of and high demands for air seats. The tourism industry has faced a serious setback because of the declining state of the national carrier.
NAC is, however, on the verge of a paradigm shift in scheduling and its focus is on acquiring additional aircraft. There can’t be any question about the need of aircraft whether it is for the tourism or any other sector of the economy to grow. Therefore, availability of air seats is everybody’s desire, including travel traders and hoteliers of the tourism industry. Needless to say, the Nepalese are in favour of strengthening the national carrier with extra aircraft.
Additional aircraft will not only help to maintain the present flight schedules but also sustain the airline’s operation. Thus, adding some aircraft would be more appropriate in view of its international destinations and the demands of the present tourist market. Besides, new aircraft would help to increase the traffic load and revenue from enhanced flight reliability, while supporting future expansion programmes.
Similarly, the corporation also needs to revitalise its domestic operations by replacing its old Twin Otters with similar modern aircraft. It needs to acquire one or two 40-60 seater aircraft to compete in the domestic market. Despite having lucrative trunk and tourist routes, it is surprising to note that so many private airlines have disappeared from the radar screen. NAC, on the other, is compelled to fly to the remote areas and at subsidised fares - yet it has kept on flying, and flying to those parts where private planes have refused to venture.
Tourism entrepreneurs hope that Nepal will witness considerable growth in tourist arrivals once NAC possesses additional aircraft. Realising the importance of the national flag carrier for the country’s socio-economic development, especially travel and tourism, they have been lobbying hard to improve its capacity.
NAC could contribute a lot to the Nepalese tourism industry by acquiring additional aircraft. Furthermore, an open proposal made by the Nepal government to operate international flights can also be considered as a good gesture towards sustainable tourism development.
The travel trade sector is hopeful that the up-coming government will strive to consolidate the national carrier. A new policy is expected to establish air transportation in Nepal in a more broad-based sector of the national economy. The government should hold extensive discussions with all the stakeholders of tourism and formulate more inclusive policies to take the country’s aviation to a newer height.
New marketing policy
It also needs to come up with a new marketing plan and strategy to expand its services in a sustainable manner. It is obvious that the upcoming grand tourism event ‘Lumbini Year - 2012’ will definitely help to foster tourism in Nepal.
(Manandhar is associated with Public Youth Campus-BTTM)