Boris and Inger Lisanveitch at Kathmandu Airport (1962)
The early foreign investors in Nepal may have been an eccentric and colorful bunch, but they did understand international tourism. As guests in this country, they realized that nurturing Nepali people, their culture, and the natural environment was both good for them and for their business. They left a legacy that still resonates in a very different tourism world today.
Boris Lissanevitch converted a royal palace into a heritage hotel and introduced fancy foreign food and liquor. Barbara Adams promoted world heritage sites and princely visits. Col Jimmy Roberts (pictured below, right) invented trekking and supported mountaineering to employ Sherpas and share the mountains that he loved. John Coapman, Jim Edwards, and Chuck McDougal brought global attention to Chitwan’s wildlife with the creation of Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge.
Conveniently coinciding with their personal business interests, these resourceful pioneers knew a thing or two about what was needed to attract high-paying visitors to adventure amidst Nepal’s natural and cultural wonders.
In those days it was not so easy, but with imagination and resolve the rich and famous were lured to the remote and mysterious Hindu kingdom, and tourist dollars started seeping into the economy. Boris’ eclectic guests included Queen Sophia of Spain, Agatha Christie, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean Paul Belmondo, and ordinary tourists followed. Air travel was ponderous, roads were scarce and communications were basic – we depended on telex, telegrams, and an unreliable crackly telephone line for reservations when I first arrived in 1974.
Despite all that, Nepal became a fashionable, sought-after spot for American and European vacationers. Often staying weeks and returning annually, most of our Mountain Travel trekkers headed to the hills for at least 14 days and often for a month at a time. Tiger Tops did not accept guests for less than three nights, and the price of $300 per person (yes, US$600 per room) included all meals and jungle activities, but not drinks from the bar. It must have been one of the higher room rates in 1970s Asia, especially as we lay deep in the forest constructed of local wood, bamboo, and thatch.
Solar electricity came later, but the naturalist-guided Chitwan excursions with elephants, rhinos, and tigers were considered a ‘must do’ component of South Asian tourism.
Our mainstream business at the lodge in Chitwan was around-the-world US groups, mostly blue-rinse ladies spending their husband’s inheritance accompanied by competent, world-weary tour guides. In my guest relations role, I grew used to answering the same questions nightly but, if I was lucky, all the tables were filled and I got to eat on the bench by the elephant tusk bar with Chuck and the Nepali naturalists.
Celebrities and superstars were regular visitors, enjoying their privacy in the undisturbed mountains and jungles of Nepal, and enthusiastic media coverage further established Nepal as the adventure of choice. Actors, writers, mountaineers, politicians and royalty flocked to sample Nepal’s unique diversity and sublime scenery.
At the other end of the spectrum, the era’s flower-power hippies gravitated to Freak Street and Phewa Tal seeking spiritual enlightenment in clouds of legally available ganja whilst haggling over the price of omelettes and apple pie. Forerunners of today’s budget backpackers, hippies played a significant role in publicizing Nepal’s tourism image, until their visas evaporated prior to King Birendra’s coronation in 1975.
A healthy holiday destination delivers to a variety of different types of tourists, from the cheap world-travelers willing to rough it, to high-paying clients cossetted in luxury, with domestic visitors an important part of the mix. Since the insurgency knocked international tourism down to half its normal volume, Nepal has struggled to regain its reputation as a quality destination or to develop new ‘authentic experiential’ hip trips to appeal to high spenders and trendy millennials.
Tourism recovery since the 2015 earthquakes has been impressive in terms of numbers, but our 1.2 million arrivals last years are mainly from cost-conscious neighbors and regional visitors who prefer the same parts of the country as were popular when I first arrived: Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Annapurna, and Sagarmatha.
The innate hospitality of the Himalayan people of Nepal is well suited to looking after guests, but uncontrolled tourism will become resented by locals who already complain that hordes of budget travellers and pilgrims contribute little but trash.
Visit Nepal Year 2020 was looming and the emphasis is on the number of arrivals rather than their ability to contribute cash. We have more and more tourists coming every year, but spending less and less during their stay. To redress this balance, we need to lure back the high-value markets by improving the array and quality of services, and developing some persuasive experiences branching out beyond the same old circuits.
There are opportunities to inspire courageous and innovative investors from both home and abroad, reassuring potential promoters that Nepal’s rich resources are ripe for responsible tourism development and that the country’s investment climate is conducive.
Perhaps we should allow the original investors to have the last word. “After a few hours I fell madly in love with this country,” Boris declared in a 1961 interview.
“I’d rather handle half as many tourists with each spending twice as much,” was Jim Edwards’ mantra. And Jimmy Roberts used to rue: “Why are we selling our beautiful mountains so cheap?”