Despite geopolitical complexities riveting the Asian region, Nepal, as an immediate neighbor, has formally joined the China-led belt and road initiative (BRI), with an anticipation to promote mutual beneficial cooperation in various fields including infrastructural up-gradation, economic development, and enhancement of the capacity in the service sector, technology transfer, cultural collaboration and above all growth of tourism sector. Because of the connectivity, millions of people visit or go through Nepal. Nepal can transform from a landlocked country to land linked country through the BRI, while also being the gateway for China to enter South Asia. By the virtue of it, no doubt, the number of tourists will increase by leaps and bounds, creating employment and income opportunities for the locals. Indeed, tourism has enormous advantages, and now it has been one of the major economic activities of Nepal. But, can Nepal manage the opportunities created by the BRI? This is one of the pertinent questions today.
Nepal and Thailand started Tourism together. But, today, Thailand is a flying goose while Nepal appears a sitting duck in the field of tourism. Still, the tourism potentialities here cannot be ignored. As the largest service industry in the world, many developing countries like Nepal have chosen tourism as a route to prosperity and progress. In the book, Peace through Tourism, L Blanchard and Freya Higgins-Desbiolles state that tourism has the potential to be a powerful social force, capable of instigating positive social, political, economic and environmental changes. Importantly, they argue that the tourism is one of the productive sector aiding in yielding peace.
As one of the attractive tourist destinations in the world, Nepal is thronged by a large number of tourists from different parts of the world, including China, because of its beautiful landscapes, and enormous cultural diversity. China is not only the second largest trading partner of Nepal but also the second largest source of tourists. The Government of China has designated Nepal as one of the tourist destinations since 2001.
Similarly, the Government of Nepal also announced free visa scheme to Chinese visitors effective from January 1, 2016 in order to attract more tourists from China. This is considered a positive gesture towards one of our friendly neighbors.
To promote tourism and trade, Nepal has established Consulate General’s Offices in Hong Kong and Lhasa, and an honorary consul has also been appointed in Shanghai. Bus service between Kathmandu and Lhasa was initiated in 2005, but today, it no longer exists.
Every year, almost 5,000 Chinese tourists travel to Nepal via air. The national flag carrier, Nepal Airlines, is all set to open up its new sector to Guangzhou. Guangzhou is the third largest city in China and the capital of Guangdong Province. No doubt, larger number of tourists will flock Nepal after this initiation.
Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yu Hong said the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation would herald new prospects for development of Silk Road tourism in the world. Likewise, Yang Tsom added, “China’s inbound and outbound tourism market is expected to rise with the implementation of One Belt and One Road strategy in the coming years. Silk Road tourism will contribute to strengthen tourism and connectivity between China and Nepal.” Tourism as a form of Track II diplomacy can fosters dialogue between both countries and its people.
However, the other side of the story is different. Joseph S Nye, junior professor at Harvard University, states in his article ‘Xi the Marco Polo’ that China’s motives are not purely benevolent…higher-yield infrastructure investment makes sense, and creates alternative markets for Chinese goods. Similarly, Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at New Delhi based Centre for Policy Research, argues in his article ‘China’s Debt-Trap Diplomacy’ that ‘through its $1 trillion OBOR initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence’.
In this reference, the BRI will definitely ‘increase dependency’. The dependency might constraint Nepal’s foreign policy options. Again, the possibility of alignment regarding policy adjustment might prevail with China’s interest. In this sense, the relationship with China will become more complicated in the days ahead.
That’s why, the price of engagement with the BRI must be well calculated. The BRI may also invite challenges of environment protection and social disorder. Nepal government must devise policies and plans to deal with it, while the policy makers should also keep in mind other consequences. Amid these circumstances, Nepal should find out its stance in the empire of Belt and Road Initiative of China.
The price of engagement with Belt and Road Initiative must be well calculated.
The writer is a student of Masters in International Relations & Diplomacy at Tribhuvan University.