Joy Dewan, Managing Director of Zenith Travels, has decades of experience in the aviation sector in the country. His travel company holds GSA (General Sales Agent) of several international airlines operating in Nepal including, most recently, of Turkish Airlines that launched its new route between Istanbul and Kathmandu from September 1, 2013. He also heads the Zenith Group of Companies (ZGC) that provides various tourism related services such as mountaineering/trekking and national/international holiday packages to his clients from Nepal and various foreign countries.
Zenith Travels is a leading name in the travel trade industry of the country as it is recognized as one of the top foreign exchange earning travel agency of the country. Anand Gurung of Nepalnews caught up with him to get his views regarding the situation of international airlines operating in Nepal and the tourism industry in the country with which it is directly connected. Excerpts of the interview:
As someone who has considerable experience in the travel trade business, tell us about the situation of the aviation sector in the country, particularly the international airlines operating in Nepal?
As Nepal is a landlocked country, international airlines are the major tools that connect Nepal to the outside world. This is why we need to improve the infrastructures to support and enhance it, and upgrading our international as well as domestic airports is crucial because this will directly benefit our tourism industry and civil aviation in the country.
The flow of international passengers has been remarkable over the past few years with new international airlines providing additional air service. This has raised optimism among the concerned stakeholders here regarding the prospects of tourism and aviation sectors in the country.
But do you think government’s lack of concern towards the aviation sector that is keeping the country’s tourism industry afloat is a major concern?
Yes. To take a recent example, Nepal urged international airlines flying into Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) to use smaller aircrafts after cracks were found on its runway. This led to brief suspension of flights at the country’s only international airport.
TIA is yet to receive a detailed report on the condition of the runway from a Spanish consultancy firm. Only after we have that report we can say for sure what is the cause behind frequent detection of cracks.
It is a fact that airports are major infrastructures of the country. We have to pay extra attention towards their upkeep and complete the repairing work as fast as possible. What the government must understand is that without national and international airlines we can’t have tourism industry and the negative signal the reports about cracked runway at TIA is sending all over the world is detrimental to the tourism industry of the country and, consequently, the entire economy of the country as well as its image.
You’ve always been a proponent of “liberal sky policy” in order to attract more national and international airline companies to start operation in the country. Why?
Like I said before, the national as well as international airlines currently operating in Nepal are helping the country’s tourism industry to run smoothly and contributing substantially to the economy. Without their active support, the entire tourism sector of the country will be in great difficulty. It is thanks to considerable amount of money various national and international airline companies are investing to promote Nepal as a destination internationally, the tourism industry of Nepal is growing steadily. Thus, they have made significant contribution towards the development of tourism sector of the country as well as the economy.
And concurrently, because of the rise in passenger movement in recent times -- with impressive increase in inbound tourists from U.S, Europe, Japan and other parts of the world over the past decade and millions of Nepalis departing for jobs and studies abroad -- there is great prospect for international airline companies to expand their business here and increase their profits. This growth is very remarkable as it comes at a time when the international aviation sector itself is going through serious recession. Currently, there are more than two dozen international airlines operating in Nepal. They have been increasing frequency of flights and passengers occupancy to serve over two million passengers flying into the country and flying out. This is why it has not been very difficult for travel companies like us to justify their operation in Nepal.
Aviation experts say that lack of direct international flights connecting major destinations like US, Europe, Japan and Australia to Nepal is also hampering the tourism industry of the country. What do you have to say to this?
Yes, lack of direct international flights from major international destinations to Nepal has caused huge loss for our tourism sector. Of the 28 international carriers that bring tourists to Nepal, those from India account for the major chunk of inbound tourism in Nepal. This could be because of encouraging growth of Indian tourists to Nepal, which is a good thing for the country’s tourism prospects. But if international carriers from Europe and U.S can be increased at the same time, it will be a great boost not only to the aviation sector in Nepal but also the tourism industry and can contribute significantly to the economic growth of the country.
However, no international carriers flying into Nepal have been allowed to operate direct long distance flights to Europe, U.S and Australia. They are allowed to operate only connecting flights which drastically increases air travel costs for tourists coming to Nepal.
So after Lufthansa (a leading German airlines) ceased its operation a decade and a half ago, Nepal has been devoid of direct international flights with Europe. This has caused significant loss for our tourism industry because many high-end tourists visiting Nepal are from Europe. In today’s world, if a country wants to attract tourists, direct air connectivity is a must. If you tell them to come via Doha, Dubai, Delhi or any other transit point then they would rather choose another holiday destination. They don’t want to spend considerable hours of time in transit. So good air connectivity is very crucial for a landlocked country like ours which relies on tourism and hospitality industry to earn foreign exchange and generate employment.
Recently our company was appointed the GSA of Turkish Airlines, which inaugurated a new route between İstanbul and Kathmandu. Turkish will have a big responsibility when it comes to increasing Nepal’s air connectivity with major destinations. This is also because after a long gap Turkish Airlines is establishing direct international flights between Europe and Nepal. Turkish Airlines is operating in 238 destinations currently, and their aim is to cover 250 destinations by the end of 2014. It has been awarded with the title of Europe’s best airline for three consecutive years and its economy class is the best in the world. So, I am sure Turkish Airlines will contribute significantly towards boosting both tourism and aviation sector in the country in the coming days.
Our national carrier's international flight operation is dismal with more than 90 percent of the international aviation market of the country in the hands of foreign air operators. Given this scenario don’t you think the arrival of more international airlines would only make things worse for it?
NAC’s market share in the international flight service has eroded over the years and has reached an all time low (3.05 percent of the Rs 80 billion international flight service business). This is because our national carrier, despite having the monopoly rights to operate direct long distance flights to lucrative destinations, has slashed down its international operation -- from 21 destinations in 12 countries back only a decade ago to a mere five international destinations today – Dubai, Doha, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Rather than expanding its fleet by buying aircrafts, the number of Boeings it used to operate in international sector has come down from four to two. Over a decade, NAC has lost its reign as a leading carrier in the country to becoming the last choice among passengers.
What we want to see is our national carrier turned into competent and world-class airlines. This is because the role of a national carrier is instrumental in tourism development and can work as a catalyst for economic growth of the country.
So if we can improve our national carrier then it would have long-term benefits for the country. The corporation is still making profits due to its ground handling and other services. This is why the government should do all it can to improve our national carrier while there is still time by increasing its connectivity to world’s leading cities with acquisition of aircrafts. It is very important that we strengthen our national carrier. But privatization of NAC is not the only solution. It should be operated as an independent, commercial company and the government should not politicize it or allow any kind of interference in its day to day operation. Only that way can it gain its market share and become one of the leading airlines in the country.
Tell us about the prospects of country’s tourism industry in the country since it is directly connected with international aviation sector?
The country’s tourism sector has great potential and to capitalize on it a good national carrier is necessary.
But everything would not happen overnight. The government is also looking into the problems facing the tourism sector. For one, they are trying everything to improve our national carrier as well as the TIA so that the move will directly benefit the tourism industry in the country. Nepal is an exotic destination for tourists. The products we have to offer to the tourist coming to visit the country is varied. We have rich culture, heritage, our own distinct art and above all our country has breathtaking natural beauty. But we have not been able to do much to attract as much tourists as we want because we have been lagging far behind in tourism promotion. For instance, countries such as Singapore with virtually no viable tourism related products have been able to promote themselves as an attractive tourist destination due to clever marketing strategy.
The government should also pay attention towards creating an environment conducive enough to ensure that foreign airlines keep on operating in Nepal and that they be able to sustain themselves. This is especially necessary when many international airlines have stopped operating in Nepal. We have to also upgrade the quality of service we provide to the international airlines at the airport.