Kathmandu (IANS) Twelve years after the hijack of an Indian Airlines aircraft, followed by a decade of civil war, devastated Nepal’s economy, the Himalayan republic Friday kicked off its Tourism Year 2011 campaign to draw 1 million visitors and make tourism earnings account for 4 percent of the GDP.
Ram Baran Yadav, the first president of the nascent republic who replaced king Gyanendra as the head of state three years ago, inaugurated the campaign at an extravaganza in the Dasharath Stadium in Kathmandu, marked by air shows, colourful pageants and the presence of tourism ministers from various Asian states.
The year-long campaign seeks to assure the world that Nepal is a safe destination, following the end of the Maoist insurgency, and boost tourism by promoting new destinations within the country and the newly launched concept of home-stay at village homes.
India and China, Nepal’s immediate neighbours, have a key role in ensuring the success of the initiative, with the Nepal Tourism Board seeking 400,000 visitors — a whopping 32 percent — from the two countries.
During 2011, Nepal also aims to speed up rail links with India and open new air routes.
The government is promoting new trekking trails for adventure tourists as well as sports like paragliding, rafting and canyoning.
Besides the hallowed Pashupatinath shrine in Kathmandu, the Indian pilgrims are being encouraged to travel farther and visit other famed destinations like Janakpurdham, the birthplace of Lord Ram’s wife Sita in southern Nepal, and the revered Muktinath temple in the mountainous north.
Also, as a reminder to the world that the Buddha was born in Nepal, a torch was relayed to the inauguration programme from Lumbini, the sacred birthplace of the founder of Buddhsim which is now a religious and monastic centre.
While the government declared Friday a holiday for schools to honour the campaign, a protracted political vacuum has, however, cast a shadow on the festivities.
Nepal remains without a government since June, when Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal was forced to resign by the Maoists, now the largest opposition party.
An unprecedented 16 rounds of vote failed to elect a new premier due to infighting among the major political parties and there is still no sign of any understanding.
On Friday, the UN exited from the peace process in Nepal after four years’ involvement, raising fresh uncertainty about the Maoists, especially their nearly 20,000 guerrilla fighters and the latter’s arms.
The UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) had been supervising the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and with its departure from Saturday, there is concern whether the PLA will continue to quietly remain in their barracks or seek to come out.
The failure of the parties to rehabilitate the PLA remains the biggest obstacle to the peace process. While the government says the Special Committee formed of major parties and security agencies will take over once UNMIN leaves, the Maoists however have refused to hand over their arms to the committee and warned it could affect the peace accord.
Nepal will reach a critical period in May. If the bickering parties fail to promulgate a new constitution, it could lead to chaos.
On the eve of the inaugural ceremony Friday, the US struck a blow, issuing a notification that warned its citizens of the ‘potential risks of travelling to Nepal’.
The US State Department said it remained concerned about the security situation in Nepal. ‘The US Embassy in Kathmandu advises US citizens that the potential remains for spontaneous demonstrations and political unrest, which could escalate into violence,’ the travel advisory said.
Also contributing to the woes of travellers was a new notification by the Nepal Electricity Authority that said it would be enforcing a 12-hour outages daily from Sunday to cope with the growing power deficit.