Chitwan National Park saw a record number of visitors in its most recent fiscal year, which ended July 16, as local safari-goers flocked to the jungle happy to be free from virus restrictions.
Park spokesman Ganesh Prasad Tiwari said 190,458 adventure seekers, 155,671 of them Nepalese, visited the park in FY2021-22.
In the 2019/20 financial year, 187,109 visitors were recorded, including 44,623 Nepalese.
Tourist arrivals in Chitwan National Park in the Tarai Plains in south-central Nepal have returned to pre-pandemic levels, officials said.
Foreign tourists stopped coming to Chitwan after the Covid-19 pandemic, but the number of Nepalese tourists started to increase. Park data shows that 89,441 Nepalese visited the park in FY2020-21.
“Domestic tourist numbers weren’t that big before the coronavirus outbreak. But during the pandemic, Nepalese tourists have acted as saviors of the local tourism industry, including resorts and hotels in Chitwan,” said Deepak Bhattarai, president of the Nepal Sauraha Chapter Hotels Association.
Established in 1973, Chitwan National Park is the country’s first national park. Characterized by dense tropical jungle, the park is a habitat for rare wildlife such as the one-horned rhino and the Bengal tiger. Tourists come from all over the world to see these animals.
Tourists are also drawn to the customs and cultures of local communities such as the Tharu and Kumal people who live near the sanctuary. Tourists explore the national park by jeep and on elephant back. Canoeing down the crocodile-infested rivers and jungle trekking are also extremely popular activities.
Recently, meetings, seminars and large congresses, including wedding parties, have been held in the hotels around the park.
Biplap Paudel, owner of Barahi Jungle Lodge, said many large wedding receptions have been held at the hotel.
Poudel said Nepalese tourists were doing good business at a time when foreign tourists stopped coming due to travel restrictions.
“During the pandemic, it wasn’t possible to travel abroad, and these spendy Nepali tourists came to our hotel,” Paudel said.
Bhattarai said programs such as symposiums, seminars and conventions would be held in large numbers. There has also been an increase in the number of Indians coming to Sauraha’s hotels for weddings from neighboring Indian cities.
Paudel said attracting foreign tourists to Chitwan is high on the agenda now that the pandemic has subsided.
“The promotion of Chitwan National Park to local tourists is going well. As Covid-19 normalizes, more foreigners will come,” Poudel said.
“Nepalese tourists may not come in large numbers, but if tour programs are made through good planning, there is a chance that local tourists with money to spend will always come to visit the park,” he said.
Most local tourists who come to the park enjoy elephant, jeep and boat rides. The Baghmara Buffer Zone Community Forest near Sauraha offers both elephant safaris and boat trips.
Jit Bahadur Tamang, President of Baghmara Community Forest, says there are records of repeat domestic tourists coming for elephant and boat safaris six or seven times.
“I think some new tour programs should be added in Sauraha,” said Tamang. “Domestic tourists visiting the park should be well informed about the specifics of wildlife tourism, the importance of wildlife and their habits.”
Rishi Tiwari, president of the United Elephant Cooperative, which is run by elephant keepers who run elephant safaris in the community forest, says more than 150,000 domestic tourists have visited the park.
“The number of people who bought tickets to visit the park has increased. There are other places in Sauraha that don’t require tickets and they also get more tourists,” Tiwari said.
“There are other places in Sauraha where you don’t need a ticket,” Tiwari said. “More than 200,000 domestic tourists visit Sauraha annually.”
Tiwari, who is also a hotelier, says there is a need to offer new programs in addition to the usual jungle safaris and tribal dances by studying interest from local tourists.
“Nepalis are interested in nightlife. But that’s not Sauraha’s specialty and something needs to be done about it,” said Tiwari.
Though the spending habits of Nepalese and foreign tourists are about the same, insiders say government revenue and foreign exchange earnings will only increase if foreign tourists come. The tax rates for domestic and foreign tourists are very different.
Chitwan National Park generated revenue of Rs. 294 million in the 2019-20 financial year. But in the last financial year, despite the record number of tourists, the park only earned around Rs 115 million, insiders said. Revenue fell due to fewer foreign tourist arrivals.
“It’s good that the number of domestic tourists is increasing, but foreign tourists are important to generate revenue,” Bhattarai said. “Future tourism plans should take these things into account. The government, hotel associations and tourism professionals should keep this in mind.”