The last time I was in Nepal was two years ago. I left with the distinct impression the country was worse off than when I visited it before the 1996-2006 ‘People’s War’. The capital Kathmandu painfully reflected an economy trying to rebuild itself. Aside from many unfinished projects and roads, litter and pollution were a real problem. But the sights – the historic monuments, the winding alleys of homes and shops, and the beautiful people – were worth it.
Following the earthquake, I found myself saying ‘so glad we went’ with great sadness. The finality of those words is based on reality: Nepalese officials reportedly said 90 per cent of the country’s UNESCO-listed heritage sites had been damaged or destroyed by the quake.
I count myself lucky to have seen them several times, yet it’s a gratitude that feels hollow – because I want my son, my other family members and my friends who have not yet seen them to also enjoy those sights. This is why travel is so desirable; it satisfies the basic need of humans to share – why do you think social media is such a hit?
Even if they restore, can it ever be the same? Can it be done in the first place, considering the millions of dollars required, by one of Asia’s poorest countries? How long will it take? Even now, when we’re talking about saving lives, never mind monuments, the UN humanitarian chief has come out to say she is “extremely concerned” about foreign aid getting stuck at Kathmandu’s small international airport or even turned back at the border with India by customs officials – the all-too-familiar signs of the bureaucracy and the political rivalries that have long plagued the country.
I can only hope that Nepali authorities will be driven by the fact tourism is the country’s number one revenue earner, thus rebuilding and restoring the country’s infrastructure and its national treasures are critical. And, as highlighted in our Analysis (see page 4), this effort must be done with real vision and leadership.
I wish with all my heart they will recognise the earthquake is an opportunity to build a more resilient Nepal for its people, and a more effective infrastructure for Nepal tourism which will enable the country gain much more income from the industry, which it deserves. Restoring heritage monuments is one huge task; the other is upgrading tourism infrastructure, be it hotels, vehicles, roads, airports, basic facilities for adventure tourism, etc.
I want to forget we ever said ‘so glad we went’ and look to the day when I can say, ‘so glad we are back’ in a stronger Nepal, one that is a torchbearer of how a developing country turns a tragedy into a model for a safer seismic future. That, is the biggest monument it can build for the victims of April 25, 2015.