Thamel is the heart of Nepali tourism. The narrow, winding, crisscrossing gallis feel like a maze with colorful shops, displays of handloom carpets, jute and hemp bags, mountaineering gears, trekking agencies, money exchange, metal artifacts, eateries, dance bars, clubs, cramped buildings with businesses on every floor, ancient temples, hotels, and guest houses. It is said that over 80% of tourists who land at the Kathmandu international airport do not leave Nepal without visiting this place at least once. Some also believe that Thamel boasts the densest concentration of tourism-related amenities in all of South Asia. It is the crown jewel of Nepali tourism – or rather it used to be.
On April 9, when we met for the GeoNight[i] event, the once-crowded Thamel seemed eerily silent, as it has for most of the last year since the pandemic brought this happening hub to a grinding halt. The narrow gallis of Thamel, looked so familiar and yet so foreign. These gallis are still ornamented with trekking shops, mountaineering gears, hotels, clubs, pubs, eateries, bars, jewels, bags, clothes – but who buys them now? Thamel seems to have time-traveled back a hundred years when tourists were more of an ‘alien’ than a norm.
“Didi, should we go this way?” my colleague Sushma asked me, breaking me out of my trance. All 31 volunteers had started at 10 am from the eastern end of Thamel and proceeded west. At each crossroads, two (or four) of our volunteers would branch off into these connecting streets. Each pair had one goal – to put their street’s businesses on the map – literally! When Sushma asked me if we should take a particular street, only four of us were left. The rest were already spread across Thamel, collecting data, street by street, shop by shop.
Heroes of the day!
These volunteers came from diverse backgrounds and came from areas far off. Some of them had reached Thamel on empty stomachs from places as far as Dhulikhel (31 km from Thamel). Most had come to Thamel by public buses, amidst the fear of the pandemic. This writing is also a shout-out to these heroes who braved the risk and volunteered their mornings to help the Nepali tourism sector reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
In little under two hours, our heroes had collected 751 businesses (more than 40 categories of tourist amenities). Below is the map showing the streets we covered that day. Each red dot is a tourism business.
Here is the pictorial recap of those two hours:
- The General Secretary of Thamel Tourism Development Council (TTDC) explains how the COVID situation has affected the tourism businesses in Thamel; and how today’s work will play a small but important role in the grander scheme of things.
2. We brief the volunteers on what they have to accomplish in the next two hours. We also install the mobile data collection app on their devices. They are ready to go!
3. Our heroes collect data in the streets of Thamel
At the end of two hours, with most of our designated streets covered, the groups started running into each other again. Well past our lunchtime, some were hungry, some were sunburnt, yet motivated. We treated ourselves with mo:mo: and coca-cola to give the day the ending it deserves.
Soon afterwards, our volunteers from Ratna Rajya college rushed back to their classes, others set off on their 31-km journey back to their hostels. They have returned to their regular lives, but their toil that day may have laid foundations for works that might touch and elicit hundreds of lives in the days to come.
How will this data be used?
Firstly, we’ll be putting these businesses on the map – literally! This map (OpenStreetMap) is free for, accessible to, and popular among tourists (prospective clients for these businesses). This will make the information (the location, contact details and photos) of these businesses visible to their prospective customers. For the businesses that are already on OpenStreetMap, we are updating their attributes and details.
Update: We have finished putting these businesses on OpenStreetMap. An interactive map showing all 751 businesses that our volunteers added is available here.
Potentially, this data collection exercise could also be a precursor to a larger program of creating a geospatially aware database of Thamel Tourism Development Council (TTDC) member organizations. Such a database would show who these businesses are, where they are located and much more. Having a digital database would also open up other possibilities in the future. For instance, future data collection (such as the one our volunteers did) could be conducted online – with fewer or no volunteers on the ground – once these businesses establish their digital presence on the database!
More immediately though, the data we collected will inform the study of Cities’ COVID Mitigation Mapping (C2M2) Kathmandu program. The C2M2 Kathmandu program utilizes open data and geospatial technologies, and creates new data and analyses to inform data-driven decision-making and planning efforts targeted at mitigating the second-order impacts of COVID-19 on Nepali tourism.
For more information about the Cities’ COVID Mitigation Mapping (C2M2) program, please go to mapgive.state.gov/c2m2.
The larger context – An insight into why we did this event
The tourism industry is one of the worst-affected sectors amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 was declared to be the year committed to the Nepali tourism industry. The Visit Nepal 2020 represented the hopes of the Nepali people, especially those who were a part of the tourism business. The intention was to bring in over 1.5 million tourists generating revenues of two billion dollars and creating thousands of new jobs. Preparations were held nationwide – hotels renovated, people rushing to get licenses, statues of the mascot ’yeti’ being installed across the country, and let’s not even get started on the excitement.
Ironically, 2020 turned out to be the worst year for tourism since 1986 with an 80.78 percent drop in tourist arrivals, even worse than during the Maoist insurgency and the 2015 earthquakes combined. As a result, billions of rupees of investments are yet to see any returns.
This resulted in a drastic loss of jobs and income which has affected millions of people whose livelihoods depend on tourism. Kathmandu Living Labs is also conducting a series of on-the-ground in-person interviews with such entrepreneurs and workers whose lives have been affected by a severely hit tourism sector. Read some of those stories here:
- Saila dai: A tourism salesman since the age of 13; desperate family man at the age of 43
- Salil Shrestha: Second generation shopkeeper at Thamel whose 35-year old shop now has a life expectancy of a few months
- Vidya Shakya: Hopes pinned on Visit Nepal 2020, income-less since 2020
- Ramesh Dhakal: From a porter to an entrepreneur to questioning life decisions
- Milan Kumar Tamang: Lead trekking guide at one of Nepal’s biggest trekking companies starts working at the share market to sustain his livelihood
- Neetam Subedi: With degrees of high school, bachelors, masters and a diploma in tourism, Neetam now contemplates leaving the sector altogether
[i] The day also marked GeoNight, an annual celebration of geography and geographers. We were glad we could celebrate it this way, this year. The event was jointly conducted by Cities’ COVID mitigation mapping (C2M2) Kathmandu, CartONG, Kathmandu Living Labs, and Thamel Tourism Development Council (TTDC).