This article is part of a series about the changing face of Chinese tourism.
POKHARA, Nepal — One of the most famous hilltops in Nepal is crowded with tourists watching the orange sun rise behind the Himalayan peaks, along with paragliders preparing to fly above the picturesque city of Pokhara. Lately, the area, with its panoramic view of the Annapurna mountain range, has been dominated by Chinese tourists. Some gravitate toward the South Asian nation in search of spirituality — others, adventure.
Many come to Pokhara — known as the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit trekking trail — for extreme sports. A seven-hour bus ride or a 25-minute flight from the nation’s capital, Kathmandu, the city has branded itself as an adventure hub, with activities ranging from paragliding to ultralight flying to zip-lining. Visitor Jia Qi, a video game developer from Shanghai, is among the growing number of Chinese whose packed itineraries include leaping off a 1,600-meter hilltop to soar over the city.
“I’ve come to Nepal for the mountains and some adventure — and paragliding is exhilarating and exciting,” the 30-year-old told Sixth Tone, minutes after landing on the banks of Phewa Lake. “You don’t get to do such activities in a location like this in China. Traveling is quite boring there.”
As increasing numbers of Chinese travel abroad each year, they inadvertently affect the local infrastructure in their vacation destinations. This is particularly true for Nepal: Since the Chinese government granted its Himalayan neighbor “approved destination status” and allowed its citizens to travel there in 2001, Chinese have become the second-largest tourist group in Nepal, after Indians. Last year, out of the roughly 750,000 international tourists Nepal welcomed, more than 100,000 were Chinese.
While paragliding has been on offer here for more than a decade, the influx of Chinese tourists has turned it into a thriving market: Some 70 companies have surfaced over the past few years, creating a small industry. The number of international tourists who paraglided in Pokhara more than tripled between 2012 and 2016, and about half of the almost 15,000 foreign paragliders here in 2016 were Chinese.
“Chinese tourists have made an important contribution to get paragliding where it is today,” said Madhav Tiwari, a pilot and paragliding tour operator who has been in the profession for six years. In the winter and summer, considered the offseason for tourism as the weather isn’t favorable to trekking, about half of his clients are Chinese, he said. “They’ve helped us sustain [ourselves] during times when business is usually slow,” Tiwari added.
Paragliders soar over Phewa Lake in Pokhara, Nepal, April 27, 2014. Sajjad Hussain/VCG
Since it opened to foreign travelers in the 1950s, Nepal’s tourism industry has been vital to the economy. Last year, tourism contributed 7.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2017 report — but tourism in the nation has always been seasonal.
Bikal Tulachan, who has worked in the hospitality industry for 25 years, has tracked the trajectory of tourism in Pokhara — from its rise in the post-1990s period thanks to heavy investment, followed by a slump during the Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006. More recently, tourism is recovering once again after the devastating 2015 earthquake.
But before the Chinese started arriving in large numbers, tourism-related businesses never operated year-round, Tulachan told Sixth Tone.
“Six or seven years ago, it wasn’t like this — they didn’t come, even though Nepal is close,” said Tulachan, who also heads the Pokhara chapter of the hospitality industry organization Hotel Association Nepal. “It has helped to revive the economy in some ways. Even during the offseason, our hotel occupancy rates are fairly good.”
Nowadays, Chinese tourists fill the low-season vacuum, as they don’t plan around seasons as much as other tourists do, local travel agency operators said. A growing number of tour companies are attracting China’s new traveling class through cheap deals, which has helped tourism-related businesses operate year-round in Pokhara.
While the number of outbound travelers from China has increased overall — rising 4 percent in 2016 to a total of 122 million — tourism experts and entrepreneurs believe that Nepal has become a particularly popular destination thanks to a mix of Chinese and Nepali government policies and investment in promoting Nepal as a tourist destination. The country’s nature and culture — as well as its proximity to China and regular flights from southern and southwestern cities like Chengdu, Kunming, and Guangzhou — have all contributed to its growing appeal among Chinese tourists.
As Nepal’s northern neighbor, China has been an important trade partner for decades — especially following a 2015 conflict between the landlocked country and its other neighbor, India. There is now talk of extending the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to Kathmandu, and last year, China granted Nepal a $215 million soft loan to construct a new international airport in Pokhara. Both countries are pushing Nepal as a tourist destination for the Chinese: China has declared 2017 “Nepal Tourism Promotion Year,” and Nepal waived visas for Chinese travelers starting in January. The Himalayan nation hopes these measures will help it achieve its target of increasing overall tourist arrivals to 2 million by 2020.
Sarad Pradhan, a consultant at the Nepal Tourism Board, said that Nepal’s inclusion in China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative in May — which signifies the opening of the land border between the two countries to international visitors — combined with increased air connectivity will bring even more Chinese tourists to Nepal.
“We are definitely hoping to benefit from China’s OBOR initiative and the willingness of Chinese people to visit Nepal,” Pradhan told Sixth Tone. “Chinese tourists bring economic benefits, and they spend more money compared to backpackers,” he said, emphasizing that they also travel year-round.
A still frame from the 2013 Chinese film ‘Up in the Wind.’ IC
The 2013 Chinese film “Up in the Wind,” a romance shot in the Himalayan foothills, has also contributed to Chinese interest in Nepal. The film features Pokhara and its close-up view of the fish tail-shaped Mount Machapuchare, as well as centuries-old Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas in Kathmandu, and wildlife in southwestern Nepal’s Chitwan area.
But it’s not just locals who are profiting from the tourism boom. As hordes of Chinese tourists flood Nepal, Chinese businesspeople have moved to the nation to set up restaurants, hotels, and travel agencies catering to their countrymen. Some areas of Nepal, locals say, are being “Chinafied”: In parts of Kathmandu’s backpacker area and the Pokhara lakeside, it’s common to see signs in Chinese advertising businesses that use China’s mobile payment platforms Alipay and WeChat. The ATMs have a Chinese-language option, and street hawkers have picked up phrases in Mandarin.
Chen Caixia from eastern China’s Jiangsu province first fell in love with Nepal six years ago when she visited as a tourist. She returned to establish a restaurant in Kathmandu and opened another one in Pokhara two years ago, along with a karaoke bar. The 43-year-old said she instantly sensed the business potential for her Pokhara restaurant specializing in Sichuan cuisine, which she named “Up in the Wind.” But now, she said, competition is tough, as there are many more businesses targeting the same audience.
Chen Caixia (left) and her colleague, Chen Xiao, pose for a photo in front of her restaurant Up in the Wind in Pokhara, Nepal, Sept. 10, 2017. Bibek Bhandari/Sixth Tone
Some locals have complained that Chinese tourists are loud and that the influx of Chinese-run businesses is negatively affecting local culture. Even some Chinese visitors aren’t impressed with their native fare offered by such businesses.
“I want to see more of the local culture and lifestyle, so I try to avoid Chinese places while traveling — I don’t want to feel like I’m in China,” said 23-year-old Zhao Junqing from Dalian in northeastern China. “That’s not what I came to Nepal for.”
Some tourism entrepreneurs worry that Chinese travelers might lose interest in Nepal if the country doesn’t upgrade and diversify its offerings. But judging from the excitement of tourists like Jia, who was traveling with his mother, this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Jia said he will bring home only good memories of the mountains, of the historical monuments, and of flying over a city that he hopes to revisit in the future.
“When I have a child, I’d like to come back to Nepal with [them] someday,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Editor: Denise Hruby.
(Header image: A tourist poses for a photo with Hindu sadhus in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sept. 25, 2017. Bibek Bhandari/Sixth Tone)