“We are all waiting for a truce.”
Bhola Thapa-President Travels and Tours is the agent in Nepal for Gulf Air, Qantas and, starting 1 September, of United Airlines
Bhola Thapa of President Travels and Tours is the agent in Nepal for Gulf Air, Qantas and, starting 1 September, of United Airlines too. He spoke to Nepali Times about the outbound market and prospects for growth.
Nepali Times: How is the traffic situation looking post-September First?
Bhola Thapa: You have to understand that air travel to and from Nepal is not as dependent on tourist traffic as before. There are up to 5,000 Nepalis who win the immigration lottery to the United States, they all travel out to America. Many go back and forth several times during the year. Then there is the big market for overseas contract workers in the Gulf region, which is picking up again after the riots here. There is also business travel.
But obviously you would benefit if tourism showed a rebound?
Of course. Adverse international publicity of the situation in Nepal has affected tourism. But I can tell you that if there is a ceasefire tomorrow, there will definitely be a big increase in inbound traffic. We are all waiting for a truce.
You have been appointed passenger sales agent for United Airlines, how much business do you hope to generate?
Last year, United generated $400,000 worth of business in Nepal. These would be passengers who connect on United flights via London, Bangkok or Hong Kong. United is a member of Star Alliance, so there is plenty of opportunity for growth with special fares with other airlines. We hope to hit $600,000 this year and may reach $1 million in 2005. So we hope to work as a feeder for United. For example, there could be a very good connection if you fly Kathmandu-Shanghai on Royal Nepal Airlines and onwards on United to the US west coast. Royal Nepal gets a certain amount of business, it is more convenient for passengers and United gets business too.
Any plans for expansion of Gulf Air’s services, or Qantas?
Gulf is looking at adding three more flights a week to and from Bahrain in addition to the current daily flight to Abu Dhabi by Gulf Traveller. We also want to introduce Airbus 330s on this route so there will be First and Business Class sections as well. The Gulf market is made up of two kinds of passengers: the Nepali contract workers flying to and from the region, and then there are the high-end passengers connecting onwards to Europe or the US through the Gulf. We were also working with Qantas to bring in its charter subsidiary from Singapore, making it more convenient for travellers to and from Australia. But that is taking time because the airline is facing an aircraft shortage. For Qantas passengers we also help with visas from the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, and we sell packages on Qantas Holidays worldwide. At President Travels we also handle discounted five-country tickets for Eurail and Eurostar.
If tourism isn’t such a big factor, what are the obstacles to growth in passenger volume?
You see, you have to distinguish between inbound traffic and outbound traffic. For those of us who are in the business of selling tickets in Nepal for outbound passengers, tourism is not such a big factor. Because most tourists who come in already have onward bookings anyway. But inbound traffic is still heavily dependent on tourism. And because of this, traffic is affected by peace and stability in Nepal. If you have a ceasefire, every airline flying in will see a big increase in volume. Inbound traffic is also affected by accessibility, which means cost. The good thing is that costs have gone down because there are more carriers in the market.
How optimistic are you about tourism bouncing back?
I see a silver lining in every cloud. Even all this bad publicity about massacres and riots in the past five years or so have actually helped the world know about Nepal. People around the world now know where it is, and once things get back to normal they will flock here.