The government must invest in completely restoring heritage sites
Prayash Raj Koirala
Shortly after the devastating earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, tourism - one of the largest industries in the country - faced a tremendous downfall. Tourist arrivals dipped down by 30 percent compared to the previous year. Fortunately, the number has risen since, reaching its all-time highest - closer to a million people - in 2017. However, with the failure of the state to restore the damaged historical and architectural heritage in the country, it is hard to say if the country will ever be able to retain or further grow the number of tourists arriving in the country.
While a small number of tourists, especially from India, arrive in the country via roadways, most of the inflow is catered through the air transport. With only one international airport, all the guests who arrive via airways are bound to step their foot in the country’s capital: Kathmandu. Despite experiencing massive rates of urbanisation, Kathmandu has so far retained its global prestige as a city of historical treasures.
Kathmandu Valley has cherished its pride of having seven of the UNESCO’s world heritage sites and other several heritages including the sattal (traditional public rest houses), hiti (stone spouts), and traditional houses and the chowks in and around the prime locations of the city. Unfortunately, even after more than three years since the earthquakes, many or most of these heritages are no longer in good shape as the state has failed to restore them. Although tourist numbers are on the rise, the inability to restore and preserve these precious heritages might hold adverse effects in the long-run. The tragedy of 2015 has magnified a new issue of poor governance and ineffectiveness of the state to conserve and retain the heritage of the country. While many of our international guests spend a majority of their time outside Kathmandu, their first and last impression is shaped by their entry and exit through the city.
Moreover, Kathmandu’s heritage does retain a high number of these arrivals. On one hand, lack of restoration of the touristic sites can reduce the ability to retain the tourists for a longer period; on the other, it can provide a poor message to the international community about the failure of the state. Propagation of this image in the long term can severely injure the tourism industry - an industry that pumped in Rs.117 billion and supported more than 427,000 jobs last year. We have been trailing behind India and Bangladesh, but are ahead of Sri Lanka in South Asia when it comes to the direct contribution of tourism to the economy.
The reconstruction efforts that have taken place at Patan Durbar Square, Changunarayan, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Jaya Bageshwori and a few other sites are impressive. But the progress on other sites deserves minimal praise. According to data from the Guthi Sansthan, more than 341 temples and monasteries were destroyed or partially damaged across the country in the disaster. Reconstruction of the damaged temples and monasteries requires an estimated Rs14 billion. Major sites including Kastha-mandap, Hanumandhoka and the Dharahara Tower have also remained as piles of sweeped rubble or deformed, unrecognizable structures since the disaster.
Furthermore, the government has also alarmingly considered completely removing some historical monuments. Why are we trying to sweep-off our historical jewels and our unique selling points? Over several decades, the state has provided minimal attention towards promoting and developing architectural and cultural heritages in the country. All that we have boasted about are the sites built and conserved since the Malla, Licchavi and the Rana eras. In the whim of throwing away monarchy, we even tried to get rid of several statues and sites built by the Shah monarchs. Rather than remove these symbols from our purview, it is important to recognize the educational value allowing them a place in our streets. For example, the Berlin Wall might have separated millions in the past, but it brings together millions in reflection at the present; it serves a clear purpose and important reminder to be preserved in today’s time.
Implementation of the western system of preservation and restoration of the heritages through state-owned agencies has clearly failed in Nepal. Ranipokhari and Dharahara are two major examples of such failures. The system of having Guthi, a publicly registered yet community-managed system of collecting funds, also might not work in these instances since the restoration of heritages requires massive financial, human and operational resources.
Whatever be the optimal solution, it is high time for the government and its agencies to realise the fact that delay in the restoration of the heritage can have multiple implications for the tourism industry of the country.
(Koirala is a co-founder of Prixa Group of Services)
The Kathmandu Post - November 12 2018