Chinese arrivals to Nepal have doubled in the last three years and they are expected to swell further due to improved air connectivity with the northern neighbour, said travel trade entrepreneurs.

According to the tourism ministry, the number of Chinese visitors jumped to 89,509 in 2013, up from 46,360 in 2010. Arrivals from China in 2012 amounted to 71,861.

Tour operators expect this to contribute to a healthy growth in tourism earnings. Spending by Chinese tourists has increased to an average of $100 a day. Three years ago, each Chinese would spend $50-60 a day.

Two major factors-China’s placing Nepal in the list of new leisure destinations and its proximity and Nepal’s low-budget tourism-have lured Chinese tourists.

But there is a lot of room for growth. “Despite being a next-door neighbour, Chinese outbound to Nepal is still very nominal,” said Bishwesh Shrestha, managing director of Shuang Qi Tours and C&K Nepal Treks.

“More Chinese are ready to come here, but the existing flight connectivity is not sufficient to handle the travel demand,” said Shrestha, one of the largest operators handling Chinese tourists.

According to a report by Forbes entitled Nine Important Developments in China’s Outbound Tourism 2013, Nepal’s exotic location has made it popular among Chinese tourists.

In 2012, Nepal recorded 71,861 Chinese tourists among whom 64,275, or almost 90 per cent, were first time visitors, the report said.

“This trend is witnessed not only by countries less in the limelight of Chinese travel but also by smaller cities within popular destination countries.”

In 2013, China consolidated its position as the Number One global tourism source market in terms of both number of trips and money spent on international travel.

That year, 97 million Chinese travelled abroad, beating the 2012 mark by roughly 14 million, according to the China National Tourism Administration. The number is expected to surpass 100 million this year.

The rapid growth in Chinese arrivals to Nepal is illustrated by the recently revised air services agreement (ASA) between the two countries.

The new ASA permits Chinese carriers to operate 56 flights a week with any type of aircraft. Earlier, Chinese airlines were allowed to operate 14 flights every week.

At present, three Chinese airlines-Air China, China Eastern and China Southern-operate daily scheduled flights to Nepal.

China Southern links Kathmandu and Guangzhou, while China Eastern and Air China link Kathmandu with Kunming and Lhasa respectively. Meanwhile, China’s Sichuan Airlines has expressed interest in serving Nepal in the near future.

Traveller movement on Chinese carriers surged 28 per cent to 187,570 in 2013 with almost 98 per cent seat occupancy. The three Chinese airlines received 40,950 more fliers in one year.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, China Southern has applied to increase its existing frequency to 14 flights a week from July 15.

“China has put Nepal in its priority list and has been encouraging its citizens to visit it,” said Pramod Nepal, under secretary at the tourism ministry.

“Besides, Chinese investments in Nepal are growing at a fast rate. That’s why Nepal is high on China’s list in terms of both destination and investment.”

China has been investing heavily in Nepal’s infrastructure-airports, hydropower, roads and tourism, and this trend is likely to grow in the future.

Government statistics show that foreign tourists stay an average of 12.57 days and spend $42.80 a day in Nepal. Chinese visitors stay for less then 11 days which is the second lowest length of stay after India but the nature of Chinese tourists is changing.

“Gradually, young Chinese tourists are being attracted towards soft adventure activities like trekking and paragliding which require a longer duration of stay,” said Shrestha.

However, in terms of spending, Nepal has not been able to encourage Chinese tourists to spend more as Nepal’s shopping destinations and casinos, one of their favourite products, have been going through a rough phase.

“Besides, expensive airfares mainly because of the monopoly held by Chinese carriers are another factor that has been hindering a massive flow of Chinese into Nepal,” he said.

Nepal witnessed a constant growth in Chinese arrivals since June 2009. Although Nepal had been given Approved Destination Status (ADS) by China in 2002, the number of Chinese tourists was nominal.

Nepal first participated in the China International Travel Fair in 2000 to promote Nepal’s tourism. The two countries signed an initial memorandum of understanding on an implementation plan for outbound travel by Chinese to Nepal in April 16, 2001 laying the groundwork for ADS.

In 2002, the China National Tourism Administration granted ADS to Nepal and in June the same year, Chinese citizens began visiting Nepal officially for the first time as tourists. Before 2000, Chinese were allowed to travel to Nepal only on official visits.

Subsequently, the central banks of the two countries signed an agreement on bilateral cooperation that allowed Chinese currency to be converted in Nepal in a bid to boost bilateral trade, tourism and economic cooperation.

During Nepal Tourism Year 2011, the government had targeted bringing 100,000 visitors from China out of the targeted 1 million tourists, but arrivals fell short of the goal. ___

Photo Credit: Prayer wheels at swayambhunath monkey temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. Getty Images