Branding destination Nepal

4 min read
08 Dec 2017
4 min read
2065 words
Deepak Raj Joshi talks about his journey at NTB, how he helped bring the tourism industry back from the brink during the tumultuous times of 2015 and 2016, and how he hopes to keep improving the sector

Deepak Raj Joshi is the CEO of Nepal Tourism Board, the organisation responsible for promoting Nepal's tourism sector internationally and locally. He joined the organisation in 2000 and became its CEO in December 2015. When he joined NTB, the tourism sector in Nepal was going through one of its lowest phases. The April 2015 earthquakes and the blockade had left the tourism industry in shambles, and people feared that it would take several years for the industry to bounce back. But under his leadership, the organisation launched a series of marketing campaigns and promotions all over the world. And this year, tourist arrivals are expected to reach a record one million.

In this Inspire interview, VMAG's Jigyasa Subedi talks to Joshi about his journey at NTB, how he helped bring the tourism industry back from the brink during the tumultuous times of 2015 and 2016, and how he hopes to keep improving the sector.

How was it growing up in Bardiya? 
While I was growing up, Bardiya was quite remote. There weren't any direct roads to Nepalgunj, and I remember travelling via India to reach Nepalgunj when I was a child. The school I attended was a government one where everything was taught in Nepali, even English.

What about your further education? How did you get into this sector?
I was quite good in my studies. After my SLC, my parents sent me to Kathmandu to study science so that I could become a doctor or an engineer. I enrolled in a high school in Kathmandu, but the country was in the middle of the 1990 People's Movement and lots of students were participating in rallies. My parents worried that I would end up pursuing politics, and then decided to send me to Lucknow for high school. I scored very poor marks in my ICSE exams; I barely managed to pass. From a bright student I suddenly became a poor student. I felt I'd let down my parents immensely. That was the first time I cried in my life. 

I then came back to Kathmandu and joined Shankar Dev Campus. I decided to get a BCom degree instead and then went on to get an MBA. Not long after I completed my MBA, the Nepal Tourism Board announced vacancies for the new Human Resource Department it had set up.  Since I had studied HR management in my MBA, I, along with a few friends, applied for the post and got shortlisted. This was back in 2000.

You started your journey at NTB at the bottom rung. How has the experience been?
I joined the organisation at an entry-level position and remained in the same position for 15 years, until I became the CEO. Over the years, I saw many of my friends join banks and other companies and rise through the ranks. I never did, and somehow that never bothered me. I was happy doing what I did. You see, I have always found the tourism industry extremely interesting. You are always interacting with new people and working on different promotional campaigns--it just never gets mundane. When I first started, I had a lot of ideas about how we should go about doing things in the tourism industry, but I didn't quite know how to approach my seniors and pitch my ideas. Over the years, I learned how to polish those skills. And then I decided to apply for the post of CEO. Even then, many people in the organisation thought that I stood no chance against other candidates, which included retired senior bureaucrats and some very renowned people. But I had a feeling that Iíd get selected because tourism was my passion and I knew the industry inside out.

When you became the CEO of NTB, the country's tourism industry was in shambles due to the earthquakes and the blockade. How did you tackle these challenges?
Prior to the earthquakes, our constitution had just been drafted so everyone was expecting Nepal to head towards more development. Due to that, there were a lot of investments in the tourism sector; many new hotels and restaurants were established. But after the earthquakes, everything came to a standstill and the industry's morale had reached its nadir. But I knew that we couldn't just give up. If anything, we had to work harder towards reviving Nepal's tourism sector. And then I was appointed the CEO, after which I put forward a plan and since then we've been working on implementing that plan. 

Based on my plan, I designated 2016 as the 'Year of Survival'. I knew that we had to generate numbers to calm down the hysteria that was spreading across the country, to give businesses hope for the future. The earthquakes had only severely impacted about 10 districts but the message that went across the world was that the country had been flattened by the earthquake. My objective of sharing that message was to make people realise that Nepal wasn't totally destroyed, but that only certain areas had been affected.
We also aggressively worked on a campaign called 'Nepal Now', which went on to become a huge success. International tourists were hesitant to believe us when we said that our country was safe to visit, so we made use of the visitors who were already here in Nepal and urged them to post messages in social media with a tagline 'I am in Nepal Now'. We also started a website for Nepal Now where we updated hard facts about Nepal and  published user-generated content. 

Furthermore, we received great support from PATA International Foundation, which created a Nepal Earthquake Tourism Recovery Fund. We also have a theme called 'Nepal Back on Top of the World', with which we eventually hope to restore Nepal's lost reputation throughout the world.

That's how we worked in 2016 as the 'Year of Survival'. And this year, 2017, is the 'Year of Revival', in which we hope to achieve historic growth in the number of tourists. We are likely to hit one million visitors by the end of the year.

What are some of your major concerns regarding Nepal's tourism industry? How do you think we can improve it?
One of the major problems that we encounter in Nepal is that there is a lot of unhealthy competition amongst entrepreneurs. Rather than focusing on improving their product, entrepreneurs are focusing more on cutting prices to compete. This attitude needs to be changed.

How can we tap into India's and China's potential as tourist-source countries? 
India and China are the biggest outbound markets, not just for Nepal but for the entire world. Even for this fiscal year's budget, we're spending 20 per cent of our total budget on these two countries. Although most of our initiatives--such as participating in travel trade fairs, organising sales missions and establishing business contacts--are very traditional, they're also quite important and necessary for the tourism industry. Apart from that, we're also focusing a lot on digital marketing, mass-media campaigns and celebrity endorsements. We recently organised a programme with Shantanu Moitra, a famous Indian music director. We are also hoping to tie up with an event that's bringing Salman Khan to Nepal. We recently also organised an event for China called 'Travel with CEO', where we invited CEOs of four Chinese companies to Nepal and had them share their travel experiences with the media. 

We know that more than traditional packages, we have to highlight the reasons why someone would want to come to Nepal. Many decades ago, we used to see a lot of Indian tourists, who would come here for their honeymoons, or to go to the casino or go shopping. But the situation has changed. So we have to brand ourselves differently. In fact, last year, we ran a Facebook advertisement campaign in major Indian metro cities with the slogan, 'Garmi Se Behal, Chalo Nepal. Heavy discount in temperature.' That clicked really well in India, and we saw a rise in Indian tourists after that campaign. So it all comes down to how we brand ourselves. If we're trying to advertise in cities, maybe we can advertise Nepal as a top destination for spiritual tourism or as one of the greatest locations for photographers--as long as we try to brand ourselves differently, I think we will be able to draw more and more tourists. We've definitely done quite a lot and the results have been good, but it's all still a work in progress.  

What about domestic tourism in Nepal? Are we doing enough? 
If you look at India and China's tourism industry, domestic tourism is their backbone, and that's how it should be. Unfortunately for Nepal, we didn't tap into this sector until a decade or so ago. Previously, domestic tourists weren't even considered actual tourists. But over the years, with many Nepalis now travelling as tourists within the country, that attitude has changed. A thriving domestic tourism industry will help the industry sustain itself during times like the post-earthquake period, when the number of inbound tourists dwindled significantly. The country has realised that and so have we. We declared the Nepali year 2073 as 'Nepal Ghumfir Barsa' in an attempt to promote domestic tourism. Until a few years ago, Rara Lake received only 3,000-4,000 visitors annually, but last year, Rara received more than 40,000 visitors. 

But all this comes with its own challenges. One pattern we've noticed in terms of domestic tourism is that Nepalis don't plan their domestic travels as meticulously as their international travels. They rarely book their hotels prior to their departure and this problem has been increasing quite a lot recently. Domestic tourism is something that needs as lot of attention and we are thus focusing on improving how we cater to Nepali tourists.

What would you say is your philosophy in life?
There's actually a back story behind this. I used to be a very short-tempered person throughout my school life as well as in college. This one time, as a student in Lucknow, India, I was travelling in a bus, wearing just slippers. It was winter and very cold and this other person who was wearing heavy boots accidentally stomped on my foot. I got really angry and shoved the guy, in the heat of the moment. He tumbled off the moving bus. Although he didn't get seriously injured, it could have been worse. There would have been serious consequences, and on that day, I realised that anger never reaps a positive result. It always has consequences. After that day, it was almost as if I never got angry again because I knew that there were other greater things in life that I needed to focus on. I started becoming more positive and mindful and appreciative of what I had, rather than waiting for something better to happen.

What advice would you give to someone who is currently figuring out what career would be best for them? 
While it is important to pursue your passion, it is also important to analyse yourself. Sometimes what you think your passion is could just be something fueled by feelings like rivalry or  jealousy. When you're young, you think you can conquer the world, but when you seek the opinions of friends and family, you often realise that your vision was flawed--of an ephemeral nature. So make sure you listen to what others have to say. Often, we miss out on things and other people have to point us in the right direction. But when you do manage to figure out what you want to do in life, make sure you never let go of that aim.