Ajay Ratna Sthapit is the managing director of Lumbini-based Hotel Lumbini Garden New Crystal. A former chairman of PATA Nepal Chapter and vice-president of Hotel Association Nepal (HAN), Sthapit is an eminent tourism entrepreneur. He hopes that the Gautam Buddha International Airport being built in Bhairahawa will be instrumental in the development of Lumbini as an important tourist destination. The knowledgeable entrepreneur spoke to Ballav Dahal of The Rising Nepal on a wide range of issues concerning the tourism industry of Lumbini. Excerpts:
This year’s autumn tourism season has just started. How is the present tourism scenario of Lumbini?
Since the beginning, tourism in Lumbini has been facing a seasonality constraint. However, Lumbini hosts a lot of tourists during the major tourist seasons. Lumbini’s reputation as an international destination grows with every passing season. With the start of construction of the Gautam Buddha Regional International Airport, Lumbini and the vicinity areas have witnessed a mushrooming growth in small-scale hotels, lodges and restaurants. But the number of tourists visiting and staying in the areas has not increased as expected. It is sad to note that there is now an unhealthy competition among the hotels.
How will the new airport contribute to Lumbini’s tourism development?
The Gautam Buddha International Airport will definitely play a vital role in the development and promotion of Lumbini. The airport project has brought a lot of cheers to investors as well as locals. As I mentioned above, the number of hotels has been increasing in Lumbini with the start of construction of the airport. However, construction of airports alone is not enough. So, the government must begin marketing the airport. Once the construction of this airport is over, they should be brought into operation in full-swing.
How prospective is Lumbini as a tourist destination?
Being the birthplace of Lord Buddha, Lumbini holds vast prospects for tourism growth. The place could be a must-see destination not only for Buddhists from across the world but also for other peace-loving people. But we have failed to capitalise on such a vital destination. The private sector investors had pinned great hopes on the successive governments that the latter would do something desirable for the development of the tourism sector. But they were not found giving top priority to this potential sector. The State-5 government has declared 2076 B.S. as a Visit Lumbini Year. This is certainly a welcome initiative. But the announcement has been made without making necessary preparations. The bid to expand the road to Lumbini from Bhairahawa has yet to be completed. Because of this, passengers travelling to and from Lumbini have been forced to face inconveniences. The State government should have intensified the road expansion work.
Earlier, the government had planned to install the sound and light system in Lumbini as part of its product development effort. But, the plan is yet to materialise. The government should undertake the responsibility of building roads and other required infrastructures. When the convenient transportation system is in place, the inflow of tourists (both domestic as well as international) into the area will definitely go up. Despite being a major tourist destination, no regular tourist buses are in operation between Kathmandu and Lumbini. The government also needs to develop tourism products or encourage the private sector to create products.
I think that it is not difficult for us to create new products in and around Lumbini if we make dedicated efforts. There are numerous interesting places associated with the life of Lord Buddha. We can develop them into distinctive tourist attractions.
Israel has developed a well, which is known as ‘The Well of Bethlehem’. They have linked the well with the life of Christ. A large number of tourists visit the well. Many tourists visit Kapilvastu, Tilaurakot, Kudan and several other places near Lumbini. But tourists do not spend much time there because of lack of proper facilities. The museum in Kapilvastu has not been managed so well.
What are the major challenges facing Lumbini’s tourism?
Lengthening the stay of tourists in Lumbini has been one of the main challenges. A shortage of human resources, especially professional tourist guides, is another challenge. Since tourism is a seasonal business, it is not easy for tourism entrepreneurs to retain such professional guides there. Hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims from Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, South Korea and other nations visit Lumbini daily. Many of them return to India within a few hours. One of the main reasons is that we have no products to offer to them. So, we must focus on developing products in and around Lumbini in order to make them stay there. Per tourist spending has dropped over the years. It is quite challenging for the government as well as tourism entrepreneurs to increase income from tourism. There are also no public toilets in Lumbini. We cannot attract more tourists unless and until facilities and services for tourists are increased.
What are the other issues related to Lumbini’s tourism?
As hoteliers, we have invested a lot of money in Lumbini. But the problem is that monasteries located inside the Lumbini Garden have continued to offer food and accommodation facilities to tourists. Although we have been drawing the attention of the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) towards this problem for many years, the authorities concerned have not addressed it. Besides, some of the small-scale hotels in Lumbini have now started undercutting rates as they claim themselves as ‘boutique’ hotels. They are found their room rates fluctuating time and again. This sort of activity has hit the big hotels. Even the government cannot get much revenue due to the undercutting of prices. So, the government must regulate them.
What needs to be done for developing Lumbini into a global tourist destination?
Building up necessary physical infrastructure is necessary. Besides, more effective tourism marketing and promotion is a must. It is also very important to us to focus on enhancing Lumbini’s international connectivity. We must be capable of doing all the aforementioned things. The process of product development will continue. Until now, Lumbini has not been recognised as a distinct tourist destination. It is time for us to put in extra efforts to develop Lumbini as a destination. In Thailand, there has been a competition among Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other cities for the development of tourism. Similar is the situation in China. We should also follow suit if we really want to reap the benefit from tourism.
It is the responsibility of the government to market and promote destinations and products in the international market. It should also facilitate the private sector to invest more in tourism marketing and promotion.
Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) has resumed its flights to Osaka. Will this help increase the number of Japanese tourists to Lumbini in the days to come? It is a good initiative that the national flag carrier has resumed its regular flights to Osaka. Because many Japanese are interested in visiting Lumbini, we hope that the Buddha’s birthplace will see more Japanese tourists. The government should have joined hands with the NAC to promote the Osaka flights. The private sector should have also created special packages for the vast Japanese market to cash in on the Osaka flights. The number of Japanese tourists is expected to increase significantly next year.
The Visit Nepal Year 2020 is now at our doorsteps. Has not its announcement brought much enthusiasm to tourism entrepreneurs?
Organising any national tourism campaign is a welcome step. However, it has not brought so much enthusiasm to us as the groundwork is not adequate. We should have sold out packages in Europe and the Americas for 2020 at least one year back. I think that we have missed the bus. Anyway, the process of product development will gain due momentum in the future. A positive aspect of the VNY 2020 is that the tourism products are being listed. We should give continuity to the VNY under different themes.