5 Ideas that are Changing Nepali Tourism
Nepal is known around the world mainly for its colossal mountains as the bith place of the Buddha. But there is more to Nepal than just that. Here are five companies that take a fresh approach to tourism in Nepal.
Nepal is known around the world mainly for its colossal mountains and as the birth place of the Buddha. But there is more to Nepal than just that. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Nepal is more diverse in terms of topography, ecology, cultures, cuisines and languages than even an entire continent, say North America or Australia. In this feature, I’ve gathered stories of five companies that take a fresh approach to tourism in Nepal. From life-changing mountain biking experiences to a Nepali blend of jazz, these companies have brought out newer ways to sell Nepal’s unique products to the world. These stories show that new ventures in tourism sector if fueled by passion and commitment to ideals can have beautiful outcomes.
A home away from home- Dhakhwa House, Patan
A Patan native, Prakash Dhakhwa had inherited a dilapidated house that was standing for more than a century at the heart of the old town. Full of his childhood memories, the old Newari residence was crumbling with damp walls, droopy ceilings and cramped rooms. The poor condition of the house had forced his family to move to a rented apartment in Bouddha. Prakash ran a family business dealing traditional handicraft items at Bouddha, while his house at the center of a town bustling with tourists was vacant and falling apart.
When Prakash was thinking about selling his house, an old classmate of his, Jitendra Shrestha, stopped him right there and suggested that he should renovate the house and turn it into a place where tourists could stay. Jitendra himself was a part of the team that started Traditional Homes, Swotha located in a nearby neighborhood in Patan. Swotha is also a restored Newari residence turned into a luxury bed-and-breakfast place.
Foundations: The rebuilding of the Dhakhwa House was done with a view to preserving not only the Newari style and design, but also every single component of the old house, from bricks and wood to furniture. “Every part of the house is filled with so much history,” says Prakash, “so we have reused everything that was usable, and added only what was needed.” Huge steel support was appended from outside to support the house so that old walls and rooms could be kept intact. Traditional wooden closets are still in use. Even an old wooden box originally used by the family as an altar during Laxmi puja, is now in use as a counter at the coffee shop.
Despite being a house that has an old-Newari appearance, Dhakhwa House is equipped with modern amenities to match a standard hotel. It provides guests with 24 hour hot water, free WiFi, back-up power during power cuts and modern attached bathrooms. With the right combination of old and new, it promises its guests an authentic experience of Newari culture, cuisine and lifestyle without compromising on contemporary needs.
Difference: “This isn’t a ‘guest’ house,” says Prakash, “it is a house where a family lives together, eats together, and shares and gathers new and old, good and bad experiences.” Prakash had worked for public relations at a hotel for a few years. Having been in the tourism business as a handicrafts dealer, he is passionate about hospitality and providing the best quality service to his guests. He believes in going one step ahead of the maxim Atithi Devo Bhava or ‘The Guest is God’. His goal is to make his guests feel not like guests in the house or foreigners in town but as a part of the family and members of the community. He and his family live in the same house sharing a common kitchen and dining space with the guests. His family shares their meals with the guests who also go to the local tarkari bazaar for groceries, drink tea on the terrace while having a chitchat with neighbors and attend a jatra if one is happening. “Our objective is to deliver the experience of living with a traditional Newari family in a traditional Newari house in an ancient town with centuries of history and time-honored traditions,” adds Prakash.
Sustainability: A rain water harvesting system is installed on the roof so during the rainy season the house can sustain on this water. Similarly, solar power is used to heat water and light up rooms during power cuts. All lights in the house use LEDs, minimizing power consumption.
Vision: Only two months since its opening, Dhakhwa House has impressed its guests. Most of its clients have been foreigners who come for long stays, usually more than a month, and who want an immersion into the culture. Prakash wants to create a successful model so that his neighbors can also follow suit. “There are hundreds of old houses in the town that are falling apart and abandoned,” says Prakash, “Each one of these houses can be turned into a similar business with very slight additional investment, to not only promote tourism and bring profit but also to help preserve our heritage.”
From Rocking Parties to Rocky Pathways – Himalayan Rides
Many people who are familiar with the name Mandil Pradhan still associate it with Party Nepal, Nepal’s first event management company. Established in 2003 by Mandil with friends Robin and Bhusan, Party Nepal touched the pinnacles of success in a relatively short time. In 2009, although Party Nepal was still rocking weekends in Kathmandu, Mandil decided to quit. He took a year off to completely change tracks. Based on his passion for mountain biking and love of the mountains, he started a company that operates mountain biking tours in remote Nepali terrains.
Mandil remembers riding mountain bikes from the age of 13. While in school, he used to ride with his friends and explore the trails in and around Kathmandu Valley. After Party Nepal, while he was wheeling through rugged tracks, he was struck by a thought. While Nepal’s terrain offers unlimited routes for mountain biking adventures, there is a genuine lack of companies that offer serious mountain biking tours. Unlike trekking, mountain biking, which is another equally popular sporting activity, has been neglected as an avenue to attract tourists to Nepal. So, Himalayan Rides came into existence with Mandil as the founder as well as the only tour guide to lead its tours.
Initiative: Mandil started out by inviting the world’s top mountain biking magazines for media trips. “I could never open up shop and wait for the clients to come. So I sent them an invite and promised to pay their airfare, lodging bills and to show them a good time,” says Mandil. They came, they saw and went back to share their experiences to mountain bikers all over the world. The next step was sorting out the logistics. The connections that Mandil had made during his time in Party Nepal turned out to be very useful in the early days of Himalayan Rides to build the foundations for his company’s operations. Himalayan Rides solely focuses on operating its tours. Mandil spends much time mapping trails, and planning trips to make sure that all details from itineraries to safety measures are thoroughly planned out and looked over. He partners with other companies to advertise tours, to connect to clients, and for other logistic operations like transportation before and after the tours.
Operation: Himalayan Rides targets only a small and select group of mountain bikers from around the world who have a specific level of skill and experience, and who are willing to pay for serious mountain biking adventures in remote regions of Nepal. The tours are conducted in small and intimate groups of ten. Since Mandil is the sole tour guide, so far the company can handle only eight tours a year. But he is not worried about a small client base. “I am ready to deal with lower profits as long as we deliver the top-notch service that we promise,” he says, “Till now I haven’t had a single unsatisfied client.” The tours take bikers through new trails in largely unexplored mountainous regions of remote Nepal combining adventure with safety and relative luxury. Bikers stay at small lodges or guest houses run by locals, and get to uncover their lives as well as explore their landscape, history, culture and cuisine. Mandil puts to use all of his extensive knowledge of the Himalayan trails and mountain bikes in his tours which at the end become more of a personal engagement than a professional enterprise. “By the end of every tour, my clients become my friends,” he adds.
Responsible tourism: Himalayan Rides strives to make sure that the trips have as little impact on the environment as possible. Its trips are supported by crews of local people. The company uses local services, guides and drivers. Majority of accommodation used in the trips is family-owned and operated teahouse lodges. Nevertheless, the quality of service to the clients is not compromised. Basic western standard for food and lodging is maintained.
Future plans: in the business for only three years, Himalayan Rides is booked till 2016. Mandil plans to slowly expand the company by recruiting additional tour guides and exploring more biking sites. He believes that Nepal’s Himalayan and hilly terrains make it the world’s ultimate destination for mountain biking, but most of the world barely knows it. “Nature has already done half the work for this country,” he says, “it’s just the other half that we need to work on.”
Offbeat tourism – Socialtours
Established in 2003, Socialtours produces specialized trips and activities for tourists in Nepal by capitalizing on Nepal’s rich and diverse culture, geography and ecology. “The present tourism industry in Nepal is focused on a very small portion of the pie that Nepal has to offer,” say Raj Gyawali, founder of Soicaltours, “With socialtours we hope to expand the pie by developing new products to sell to the world.” Currently Socialtours has 75 different tours and activities and several of them are new and unconventional tourist activities like rice planting trips and hands-on culinary and handicraft experiences. It also operates treks in routes that are not so popular among mainstream tourists like the Limi Valley circuit in Humla and Chepang Hills in Chitwan.
Challenges: While a rice planting tour or a trip following Nepali coffee from farm to cafe might sound like fascinating ideas for tourism, such unorthodox trips are extremely difficult to sell. In its early years, the company came up with the idea of skiing in the Himalayas with the tagline “Skiing above Europe,” but no one bought it. One solution, according to Raj was to advertise into specific interest groups. In social networking sites like Facebook, there are groups that attract people with common interests. For instance, the coffee trip can be advertized to a group containing coffee enthusiasts. There are always people out there who would be interested in really specific topics like mountain yoga or herbalism. The challenge is to reach out to them and show them that Nepal might be a place for them to travel.
Corporate Social Responsibility: Socialtours embraces a business model that integrates codes of corporate self-regulation in order to ensure its ethical standards and responsibility towards its clients, employees, as well as the communities and the environment affected by its activities. So it designs culturespecific tours and activities that help to keep alive different cultural practices that are slowly disappearing with increasing modernization. For instance, the company organizes a Newari bhoj every year with a view to preserving this tradition that is becoming less common in Newar communities. Raj believes that resources for tourism in Nepal are very vulnerable if the key players do not operate in responsible manner to preserve our heritage and nature.
Voluntourism: Socialtours also works on projects with local partners of Save the Children Alliance Nepal to promote voluntourism (Volunteering + tourism) and charity tourism in Nepal. To combine tourism with social service, the company works to connect interested volunteers from abroad with projects that need extra hands.
Vision: Raj sees an unlimited potential for the tourism sector to expand in Nepal. “The entire far western part of Nepal with its cultural, geographical and ecological wealth has been untouched,” he says, “Different forms of tourism can and needs to be developed in this region with careful and responsible planning.”
Easy hotel booking – Parakhi.com
Planning your travel has become much easier with the help of the Internet. Arriving at a place to scour for hotel rooms – that’s old news. In Nepal, however, this is not the case. Only a few hotels and resorts have their own websites with options for online booking. The majority of hotels, especially smaller lodges and bed-and-breakfast places, have little or no online presence. While international hotel booking websites like agoda.com also cover a few hotels in Nepal, their reach is only to major tourists hubs like Kathmandu and Pokhara. Parakhi.com, a relatively new Nepali website, aims to fill this void in the local travel and tourism industry. Through its online hotel directory, users can browse numerous profiles of hotels in different places in Nepal and book rooms over the Internet.
Demand: Before starting Parakhi, the team conducted surveys among tourists and hotel owners to understand the need for an online platform for hotel reservations. Especially in medium range hotels, less than 20% of rooms are booked during off-season. Many foreign tourists who cannot afford to book rooms in five star hotels thought that online booking for medium range hotels would be a convenient option. Both hotel owners and tourists expressed interest in having an online reservation system.
Challenges: One of the main challenges in the initial phases of the website was finding the data to start the venture. There was no easy way to collect data besides visiting every business and asking questions and having them fill surveys. Another stumbling block for the company was finding talented software engineers. “We were very lucky that we found and trained excellent engineers for our company,” says Sameer Maskey, Founder of Parakhi.com, “As we continue to operate the website, we still find it a major challenge to findand fill certain positions at our company.”
Strong Suits: Unlike other major hotel booking websites, Parakhi covers a wide range of hotels in Nepal in terms of prices and locations. The website also posts local updates about activities of interest going on in places where the hotels are located on its blog. Parakhi has a very strong presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube through which it has gathered many followers and users. The website is largely targeted at Nepalese living abroad who often travel to Nepal and need to plan out accommodations for their stay. It also hopes to get international as well as domestic tourists using the service. Nirmal Thapa, Director of Operations, says, “People with disposable income in Nepal are increasing in number. So, the number of people traveling for holidays and work is on the rise. We want these people to use our service.” Parakhi is also launching its own Android app in July which will make it possible to browse and book hotels through a smartphone.
Jazzmandu: Tourism Through Music
Jazzmandu is an annual jazz festival that began in 2002 with the aim to promote jazz in Nepal. Founded by Chhedup Bomzan of The Jazz Upstairs Bar, and Navin Chettri, drummer and vocalist of Cadenza, Jazzmandu has been able expand in its scale, reach and scope. The size of participants from Nepal as well as abroad has grown, now claiming to be the “biggest jazz party in the Himalayas”. The event has been able to bring world-class musicians to audiences in Kathmandu. In 2012 the festival featured international musicians such as Tito Puente Jr., son of legendary Tito Puente, king of Latin jazz, and 11 time Grammy nominee Marlow Rosado along with other artists across the globe who came and shared their music to an audience that was equally international.
Cultural Interaction: Over the course of ten years, Jazzmandu has emerged as a venue for musical interaction among different cultures. Jazzmandu creates a platform for musicians from around the world with diverse cultural backgrounds to interact through music. Besides promoting jazz music in Nepal, the festival also promotes the unique and diverse traditional music of Nepal, where top Nepali traditional musicians share the sounds of Nepal, with the audience as well as visiting artists. Jazz at Patan is a unique event that focuses on blending sounds created by visiting international musicians with local Nepalese traditional musicians. This show of fusion has become a crowdpuller during the festival. The cultural interaction has significant impact and influence on everyone involved.
Promotion of Tourism: The Kathmandu Jazz Festival has become an annual attraction for tourists who would like to include an international music festival as a part of their experience in the Himalayan country. Many travel agencies have started including Jazzmandu as an attraction in their package tour of Nepal. The festival is a pleasant surprise for tourists who get to witness a jazz party with a Nepali touch. The shows are performed at some of the most fascinating locations around Kathmandu, including some UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These performances help bring Nepal to the attention of communities that might not otherwise be aware of all that Nepal has to offer.