Tourism is one of the largest industries in Nepal, employing more than a million people and contributing 7.9% of the total GDP. It is also one of the fastest-growing. The number of international visitors crossed one million in 2018 for the first time (not counting Indian tourists arriving by land), a 59% increase from 736,000 in the Nepal Tourism Year 2011, despite setbacks from the devastating 2015 earthquake. Domestic tourism has witnessed a sharp increase since the earthquake, contributing 56% of the total tourism earnings in 2018. Nepal is home to four world heritage sites: Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, Sagarmatha National Park which includes Mount Everest, the highest peak on earth, seven monuments in the Kathmandu Valley collectively listed as one, and Chitwan National Park. Most of the country’s tourism is confined to these destinations, in addition to Pokhara, the Annapurna trekking circuit, and other Himalayan mountains which attract mountaineers and sightseers from around the world.Although Nepal is home to eight of the fourteen eight-thousanders, all among the ten tallest mountains in the world, most of Nepal’s mountaineering earnings comes from Mt Everest, which is more accessible from the Nepalese side. Despite a vast potential for spiritual and cultural as well as mountaineering and eco-tourism, Nepal’s share of foreign tourists visiting South Asia is only about 6%, and tourists spend much less on average, with Nepal sharing only 1.7% of the total tourism earnings of South Asia. The largest contributors of foreign tourists to Nepal are India (16%), China (12%), the United States (8%), Sri Lanka (7%) and the United Kingdom (6%).
Nepal’s tourism sector officially opened for westerners in 1951 but remained seriously hindered by a lack of proper planning and investment, continuous political instability. Once a popular final destination at the end of the hippie trail with legalised marijuana and hashish shops in Kathmandu, Nepali tourism was at its lowest during the civil war in the 1990s. Enthused by the upsurge since the peace process began, Nepal aims to welcome two million tourists in 2020, double the 2018 figures, via the concerted Visit Nepal 2020 initiative. With a lack of proper facilities for high-end tourism termed the “infrastructure bottleneck”, the flag carrier in shambles and blacklisted by the developed countries, and with only a small number of popular destinations properly developed and marketed, the goal is considered too ambitious. The home-stay tourism, in which cultural and eco-tourists stay as paying guests in the homes of indigenous people, considered a more equitable and viable means of developing the sector, has seen some success. Lumbini and other Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimages including Pashupati temple, Swayambhu and Boudhanath in Kathmandu, Muktinath in Mustang, and Janakpurdham, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Videha and home to goddess Sita, are among the premier destinations for the development of spiritual, religious and cultural tourism. Diversifying eco-tourism by developing and marketing less popular national parks, trekking routes and mountains are considered essential for the growth of the industry.