The influx of Chinese tourists in Nepal has led to an increase of tourist guides learning Mandarin

7 min read
08 Aug 2017
7 min read
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From the Archive (May, 2016): The demand for Mandarin classes is so high in Nepal that Bishwo Bhasa Campus, the language-teaching campus under Tribhuvan University, gets twice as many applicants as there are seats available
The increase in the number of Chinese tourists has provided newer opportunities for tourist guides who are willing to learn Mandarin

Back when Timilsina decided to opt for the Mandarin course, most Mandarin- speaking tourists came from Taiwan. Since 2002, when Nepal was given the Approved Destination Status (ADS) by the Chinese government, the number of Chinese  tourists began to gradually grow, until getting to as much as 113,173 in 2013. There was a slight dip in 2014. And of course, owing to the earthquakes and the blockade 2015 made for a lost tourist season, when the numbers dipped by 45.89 per cent. But, says Timilsina, the guides are back in business now.

“When I started out, we hardly had over a dozen Mandarin-speaking guides,” says Timilsina, 48. Now, because of the surge in Chinese tourist numbers, he believes there are over 300 such professionals.

Indeed today, there are even guides such as Barad ‘Monty’ Neupane, 30, who actually started out working in another profession but switched vocations because of the promise in the tourism sector. In 2011, Neupane had just finished his master’s in Rural Development. But instead of searching for a job in his field, he decided to become a tourist guide. That very year, he received his tourist guide license from Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM), and in a few months he managed to get himself enrolled at the Confucius Institute in Kathmandu University to study Mandarin.

Mandarin classes are in high demand are high at language instutes like Bishwo Bhasa College

Today, the demand for Mandarin classes is so high in Nepal that Bishwo Bhasa Campus, the language teaching campus under Tribhuvan University, gets twice as many applicants as there are seats available for their courses. Mandarin is hands down the most popular course at Bishwo Bhasa. According to Bam Dev Adhikari, the campus chief, although some of the Mandarin learners comprise students seeking to go to China and businessmen who want to import goods from the mainland, most who do so want to become guides for Chinese tourists.Even though Mandarin is not an easy language to master.

At Bishwo Bhasa, according to Adhikari, this most popular of courses also sees the highest dropout ratio. Of the 300 students in the first semester only half of them end up taking the final exams, and only about a dozen students graduate at the end of the sixth semester. The high dropout rate can be attributed to the difficulty that students have in reading and writing the language; furthermore, to gain fluency even those that do stick around until the end of the course will need to immerse themselves in an atmosphere that is conducive to becoming better speakers. That is why quite a few graduates of the Mandarin schools in Nepal head to China to hone their language skills by living among native- Mandarin speakers.

“You need to be a good listener if you want to be fluent in the language,” says Neupane. “Mandarin is a tonal language, and to decipher the exact meaning of the tonal inflections there is nothing like listening to actual native speakers.” Neupane himself spent 10 months in Shanghai, studying Mandarin at Tongji University.

Mandarin is a tonal language, and to decipher the exact meaning of the tonal inflections there is nothing like listening to actual native speakers

A lot of time and money is being invested by a lot of guides to learn Chinese today because China is the second largest source of tourists to Nepal, behind only our other neighbour, India.

Nepal is a beneficiary of China’s economic success, because of which more and more Chinese are heading out of their country during their vacations. Since 2012, China has been the largest source of outbound tourists in the world. In 2015 alone, China recorded 120 million outbound visitors, who spent USD 104.5 billion, according to the China Tourism Research Institute.

Obviously the numbers we see in Nepal make but a tiny, tiny drop of that outflow. But the Chinese tourist guides and the tourism entrepreneurs here are not complaining. Most tourists from other countries come over to Nepal only during the two tourist seasons— spring and autumn. But the Chinese make their way here year round, except for the monsoons, meaning the Chinese tourists then compensate for the shortfall faced by the tourism sector during the lean seasons. According to Bishwesh Shrestha, Managing Director of Shuang Qi Tours, Chinese  tourists’ numbers peak during the Chinese New Year (between January and February) and the Golden Week (between September and October). If you are a Mandarin-speaking guide, you’ll be employed all year long. 

Barad ‘Monty’ Neupane with his Chinese clients

“It’s a simple case of demand and supply,” says Neupane. A regular inflow of tourists arriving from China means that there should be enough fluent Chinese-speaking tourist guides to show them around. The more seasoned guides have learned to work in accordance with Chinese preferences.“They are very particular about their food and usually want the guide to be around them as much as possible,” says Shrestha. Most Chinese tourists rarely try continental and Nepali fare, and the guides and tour organisers need to ensure that their clients can get their Chinesef ood fix throughout their visit.

It’s because of their uncompromising palate that a new culinary niche has been burgeoning around Thamel. Restaurants serving Chinese cuisine have mushroomed throughout Kathmandu’s main tourist district, and even at Lakeside, in Pokhara, a destination that is a big draw for Chinese tourists. And in Jyatha, it’s not just restaurants that cater to the Chinese that have proliferated—there are hotels, travel agencies and curio shops who are thriving today owing to the Chinese influx.

With improvement in connectivity with China, we should see even more Chinese tourists

It’s mostly the urban or peri-urban tourist destinations that are cashing in on their growing numbers. Most Chinese tourists just want to relax. To be sure, trekking is slowly becoming popular among them, but most don’t want to hit the trails or get on the mountains. Pokhara is a particularly popular destination. Neupane says that he has worked as a guide for many couples who decided to head over to Nepal because they had watched the Chinese movie Up in the Wind, many of whose scenes were shot in Pokhara. The movie portrayed Nepal as a destination where Chinese youth could go toescape their mundane lives in China. It especially popularised paragliding, and according to Neupane, there are couples who come to Nepal to specifically to paraglide over Phewa Lake, against the backdrop of the Himalayas.

The bulk of the tourists come in large groups, though, but no matter their cohort size, Mandarin-speaking tourist guides know that they will get paid well by their clients. “Chinese tourists tip very well. In fact, tourist guides earn more from tips than from our wages,” says Shrestha.

Learning Mandarin has other benefits as well. Tourist guides can use their knowledge of the language in other dealings too. Neupane himself has worked with a hydropower company and banks, and as a mediator between an online company in Nepal and their product distributors in China.

He and other guides like him know they have it pretty good. And things might get even better for the experienced guides.“With improvement in the connectivity with China, we should see more Chinese tourists,” says Shrestha. And that means even better times for the Mandarin- fluent guides.