June 16, 2015
Yesterday, in an effort to bring in tourist dollars, the Nepali government reopened six heritage sites, in spite of warnings from UNESCO.
Sites include Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, Lumbini, Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square and Bhaktapur Durbar Square.
The historic value of the three Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, are invaluable to the culture and economy of Nepal. They date back to the period between the 12th and 18th centuries, when the Kathmandu Valley was divided into three Hindu kingdoms. They and the temple complexes of Changu Narayan and Swayambhu were the most damaged by the earthquakes. Two other heritage areas in the valley, Boudhanath stupa and Pashupatinath temple, suffered only minor damage and remained open to the public after the earthquakes.
And it is true that Nepal’s tourism industry has been devastated by the disaster that struck the country almost two months ago. Out of a total 741 shrines across Nepal – major tourist draws – 133 were completely destroyed. The Nepal Economic Forum, a Kathmandu-based think tank, says 80 per cent of hotel reservations have been cancelled since the quake. There’s no doubt that this lack of tourist dollars will further detain renovations and reconstruction overseen by a cash-strapped government. It’s estimated that in the first year a Rs. 1.8 billion budget is required for restoration and renovation of shrines, which will be but the first phase of reconstruction.
But how wise is it to rush things and spin an optimistic assessment of the sites’ safety? What are the risks for further damage to the monuments as well as gambling with sightseers’ safety?
In a statement released last week, UNESCO raised serious safety concerns calling the situation “precarious” and advised against reopening. urgeing the tourism and archeological bodies “to carefully plan the reopening process, prioritizing safety and security.”
Yesterday, Christian Manhart, head of UNESCO’s Nepal office in Kathmandu, told the New York Times that he believed that two of the sites, in particular, were still either unsafe or vulnerable to theft because the rubble from the earthquake was not yet cleared:
“At Kathmandu Durbar Square there is the huge palace museum — one very big building which is totally shaky,” he said. “The walls are disconnected from one another so this big wall can fall down at any moment. There is still a risk that buildings might collapse.”
Mohan Krishna Sapkota, spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation sees it differently:
“Tourists will have to take guides with them who will know about the safe routes around the monuments.”
When asked about the museum, Nepal’s Tourism Department said yesterday that the museum would remain closed.
Mr. Manhart, however, insisted that even allowing visitors close to the museum could be dangerous. Referring to the ministry, he said, “They say that there is some pressure to reopen those sites so they can request entrance fees, which is badly needed.”
Perhaps Simon Watkinson, a British travel agent in Nepal, should have the last word. In an interview with Agence France Presse, he said the reopening of the heritage sites would not bring back tourists. “It does not change anything given that foreign countries have issued advisories saying that Nepal is unsafe,” he said.
In the meantime, Nepal continues to have aftershocks above 4.0.