‘We need adequate marketing, infrastructure and connectivity’

Shreejana Rana is the newly elected President of Hotel Association Nepal (HAN), an umbrella association of hotels and resorts. With over three decades of experience in the hospitality industry, Rana is the executive director of Hotel Annapurna. A dynamic tourism entrepreneur, she is also a member of the Visit Nepal 2020 Programme Implementation Sub-committee. In a written interview with The Rising Nepal, the visionary hotel industry leader expressed her confidence that the upcoming national tourism campaign would help boost the country’s tourism industry. Excerpts: sreejana rana

How do you see the current tourism scenario in Nepal?
Tourism has a big role to play in our country with potential for growth. A major challenge for hoteliers is that the hospitality industry is intertwined with the promotion of our tourism industry. While we are one of the best countries in the world in terms of products, we lack adequate marketing, infrastructure and connectivity.
Marketing is integral to the success of any product and even more so in the hospitality industry. For instance, the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) has been very enthusiastic about the Visit Nepal Year 2020 and has been marketing it rigorously. With effective and continuous marketing strategies, the campaign is bound to make a lasting impact on our tourism industry.
Infrastructure is vital for development, not only for the hospitality and tourism industry but also for all the industries. But our road connectivity is poor and air connectivity expensive. While the country has taken a positive step towards renovating as well as constructing new infrastructure, the pace is far too slow. Incentives and penalties must be established and administered.

But the preparations being made for the national tourism campaign seem to be inadequate. What is your opinion on this?
It is late but as the saying goes: better late than never. As a member of the VNY 2020 Programme Implementation Sub-committee, I can say that preparations are well underway and we are doing our best to stay on schedule. The national tourism campaign is not just limited to 2020 but is targeted for 2020 and beyond. The campaign is a lifetime experience. Our focus is on quality tourism entering Nepal. To help us achieve this, we have many initiatives in process. We will be focusing on different areas of the country and promoting stories rich in culture and history. For example, we will be promoting Lumbini and its association with peace; and the Janaki Mandir in Janakpur with its connection to the Ramayana. Beside this, we will be emphasising the features that make Nepal so unique and amazing – abundant wildlife; adventure tourism that includes rafting and mountaineering; and our diverse festivals and culture. As you may have noticed, restoration of our historic architecture is already in full swing in different parts of the valley. We can all be proud of our product once this is complete. However, ultimately, it will depend on management decisions.

Will the country’s hospitality sector be able to cater services to the target number of tourists next year?
Yes, all the hotels are promoting VNY 2020 in their marketing materials in one way or another and we are making sure that not only the agencies but also our guests are made aware of the campaign, especially those guests who visit Nepal often. The hotels were concerned about extra rooms and how we were going to fill them. The government’s target of 2 million visitors is ambitious but with all parts of the hospitality sector and government agencies working together, we are optimistic that we will realise this figure. A great deal of work has been done in updating our products in terms of services, restaurants, heritage sites, etc.

You have been elected as the first woman President of Hotel Association Nepal (HAN). What are your plans and programmes?
I am honoured and proud to be the first woman President of HAN. However, I do not want credit solely because I am a woman. I was unanimously voted into office. I am the President because of the confidence that HAN has in me as an individual, not because of my gender; and, because I am capable of bringing change and doing justice to the position. There is so much I want to do and achieve for HAN and for the hospitality and tourism industry during my tenure.
HAN will give priority to training, be it for homestays or for 5-star hotels. This will ensure the quality and standard of our guest services. HAN will also fight to make its voice heard in the policymaking. By working hand-in-hand with the government, we can capitalise on resources and develop more effective and pragmatic policies. Best practices of neighboring countries will be analysed and, if relevant, adopted and customised to fit our national and local context. We will also examine supply and demand of the market on a regular basis and promote research and development for growth.
The promotion of Nepali cuisine at home and abroad is a strong priority. Also, while we Nepalis are blessed with a beautiful country, at times it feels like we are taking it for granted. HAN intends to promote the local cuisine and products of each of the seven provinces to boost both international and domestic tourism. We want our visitors to enjoy exploring and visiting different parts of our country.

What are the problems and challenges facing the hotel sector?
The government must include the private sector in decision and policymaking processes. There is significant investment in the hotel sector and the government must take measures to protect investors and their investment. Simultaneously, while plans and policies are in place, the implementation part by government remains weak. The industry must be given precedence and be provided with the same facilities as other priority industries.
As mentioned previously, infrastructure and connectivity remain major issues that need to be addressed. Besides this, when it comes to Nepali managed properties, service standards are not on par with international service standards, chain hotels being the only exception. Nepali managed properties had to concentrate so much on politics that they fell back on service standards. This is why there must be a strong focus on training for high quality services. Our product must be able to compete with a variety of attractive tourism destinations and hotels in our region and globally. Ultimately, tourists should be satisfied with our services.
A special concern is also with the numerous homestays that have erupted in the heart of the city. While homestays do not have to pay taxes, they earn more revenue than hotels. Currently, this has become a challenge that the hotel industry needs to be prioritised.

Price undercutting is said to have hit the hotel industry. What is your observation in this regard?
The recent entry of so many new hotels and the flourishing of homestays have markedly increased the inventory of rooms. If the number of tourists, both inbound and domestic, remains the same, there is a regrettable but understandable pressure on properties to cut rates to get what business they can. A pragmatic approach to this is a two-pronged solution. One is to raise the number of visitors. Clearly, the government and our industry are working hard on this with the VNY 2020. The other is to have the government formulate and enforce a minimum rate policy for each star hotel. This was an approach that the Sri Lankan government took back in 2009. This move benefitted not only the owners and operators but also the employees by way of an increased pay out from the service charge. The government naturally also benefitted from taxes and levies. Nothing is perfect and there are issues such as establishing the right floor price for each star level and the need for an effective government monitoring mechanism. If the right floor level is not identified, there is the danger of overpricing ourselves and driving our tourists elsewhere. This is a fundamental reason why the policy was always unpopular with inbound tour operators. No solution is perfect and currently, after nine years, the Sri Lankan government has put the policy on hold. But as long as we have an oversupply of rooms, the possibility of a price war will remain. To do nothing and hope for the best is not a solution. We must be proactive.

What are your suggestions for the government to boost the tourism industry?
As I said in my earlier responses, there is a fundamental need to upgrade our infrastructure. We are one of the most attractive destinations in the world. But there is no point in having some of the best products in the world, if getting to them is a nightmare. Our infrastructure needs development on a crisis basis. We also need our government to support and give our industry a boost. For instance, tourism is recognised as one of the sectors of national priority. But in practice, it is not given any of the facilities and considerations it deserves. Developing new destinations and experiences are all very good, but we must maintain and improve our current sights and experiences, too. Training is vital. Our services must be up to if not better than international standards. And marketing will always remain a key part of our strategy. How we get the message out and how we price ourselves is vital. A price war may result in short term gains for some. But in the long run, nobody wins.

How do you look at tourism marketing and product development efforts?
Earlier, Nepal was dealing with political instability and a poor economy. The country was in basic survival mode and quality and standardisation were not major concerns. While things are progressing now, we are still not up to international standards when it comes to product development and marketing. Our efforts are often hit and miss.
Marketing is something that we cannot compromise on both in quality and investment. Social media plays a huge role in marketing in today’s society enabling us to reach the masses both nationally and globally at a low cost. We must integrate this with other marketing methods to create awareness and better promote our products. But we must also keep in mind that marketing in the days of social media is a completely different thing to that of just a few years ago. People’s expectations and wants are more fluid and volatile. By one simple post, their thoughts and views can reach millions of potential visitors. We must adapt accordingly.

At the end, would you like to add anything more to this?
The current influx of new hotels is a positive reflection of our country’s current economic climate. Things are looking up and the tourism sector is showing positive development. As mentioned previously, HAN’s major focus will be on training and standardisation. Besides this, we will be emphasising the importance of research and development. It is very important to have the right professionals working at the right place. Together with employees’ protection, it is imperative that employers also be educated on issues such as contract development and retention policies. And finally, we must all learn to “walk the talk”.

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