Tourism and Natural Disaster Recovery: Keys to Success

What is the impact of natural disasters on tourism and how can the tourism industry itself promote recovery for the destination? Examining Nepal’s recovery following the Gorkha Earthquake in 2015, Jacqueline Harper shares insights into the role of tourism in disaster recovery, emphasizing the significance of swift recovery, effective destination marketing, strategic partnerships, and the opportunity to build back better through sustainable and community-focused approaches.

How tourism can help a tourist destination recover after a natural disaster 

In the wake of the Maui fires, earthquakes in Morocco, a new 2023 quake in remote western Nepal, and other recent natural and manmade disasters, tourism officials have been contemplating when to resume their tourism operations. This dilemma is not uncommon. Re-opening too soon can endanger tourists’ safety; add pressure to already taxed infrastructure, accommodations, and resources; and re-traumatize residents when tourists ask how they were affected by the disaster. On the other hand, tourism and the resumption of business activities is urgently needed to fuel the speedy recovery and rebuilding of the devastated local economy.

The Gorkha Earthquake in Nepal is a case study of how tourism can aid in disaster recovery. On April 25th, 2015, the Gorkha region of Nepal was the epicenter of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Hundreds of aftershocks occurred for months afterward, leaving a serious impact on the country’s infrastructure, including many heritage sites that double as tourist sites. Thousands of people were injured and died. Damages cost approximately $7 billion USD, and impacted about one-third of the population. In terms of tourist arrivals, after 6 months, visitor numbers had declined by 42%.

Before and after pictures of Durbar square in Kathmandu. [Photo courtesy of National Geographic]

I spent 3 months in the Kathmandu Valley researching how tourism can help a tourist destination recover after a natural disaster and gained four key insights:

1. There was a quick time frame for tourism to return to normal levels.

As shown in Figure 2 below, there was initially a decline in tourist arrivals following the earthquake. However, starting in 2016, tourist arrivals bounced back and continued to grow. In 2017, Nepal hit over one million international arrivals – a goal they set before the earthquake – and achieved a few years ahead of schedule. By 2018, Nepal was the third fastest-growing country in Asia based on tourist arrivals. Like many countries around the world, COVID-19 hit tourism in Nepal hard in 2020 and 2021; however, the number of arrivals is now back on the incline.

Tourist Arrival Numbers from 2010 to 2022. [Tourist Arrival Numbers received from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation]

2. Destination marketing played a critical role in the post-disaster tourism recovery.

One of the keys to getting tourism started again after the earthquake was marketing and the media. Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), the country’s destination marketing organization, worked diligently to restore the country’s image following the earthquake. In the media, Nepal was being shown as being destroyed – places in ruins; collapsed temples; people in hardship – an unappealing image for travelers selecting their next destination. However, this narrative was not completely true. The earthquake impacted a few regions; only 31 of 75 districts were hard hit. The earthquake did not impact popular tourist destinations like Pokhara and Chitwan. This is where marketing and the media were key to bringing tourism back.

NTB invited celebrities in key market groups to come to Nepal and highlight its tourism offerings: Jackie Chan, David Beckham, and Prince Harry, to name a few. This sparked conversation in the international news and demonstrated to international markets that Nepal was once again open for tourism. Additionally, representatives from NTB were sent on international roadshows to promote Nepal to tourism agencies, who would then promote traveling to Nepal within their own countries.

Prince Harry visiting Patan Durbar Square to view ongoing efforts to restore one of Nepal’s cultural treasures. [Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Harper]

Unfortunately, NTB had limited funding, so one strategy they employed was user-generated content. By doing so, they could receive maximum impact with little resources. The few tourists who were visiting at the end of 2015 and 2016 would photograph their travels and pose with a sign saying, “I am in Nepal Now” and then post it on their social media feeds. This demonstrated to their followers that it was both possible and safe to travel to Nepal after the earthquake.

Norie Quintos, a communications and content consultant, posing in front of an “I am in Nepal Now” sign in June 2019, while visiting the Himalayan Travel Mart conference. [Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Harper]

Between 2017 and 2019, NTB organized travel conferences inviting international press and journalists to come to Nepal and experience a location, such as Pokhara. In turn, they would write about it, and promote Nepal to foreign audiences.

These different methods allowed the NTB to rewrite the narrative of the country post-disaster and promote tourism once again.

3. Partnerships are key to disaster and tourism recovery.

The success of Nepal’s disaster recovery was also due to partnerships. NTB worked with news outlets like BBC, CNN, and TripAdvisor to get the message out that one could safely travel to Nepal. They also had financial and technical support from other countries like Japan International Cooperation Agency, China Aid, USAID to rebuild heritage sites. International Knowledge of tourism recovery came from PATA, the World Bank, and UNWTO to help with the tourism recovery. International partnerships were key for rebuilding and financing the recovery, but also marketing the country to foreign markets.

4. Disasters are an opportunity to build back better within the tourism industry.

Based on my observations, tourism is being promoted heavily post-earthquake and COVID-19 to attract as many visitors as possible. My main criticism of this process is that the NTB government is adopting the “heads in beds” strategy, in which they try to maximize growth by bringing in as many tourists as possible. Immediately following a disaster, this may be important to restarting an economy; however, once tourism has returned, it should not be the long-term strategy. Natural disasters are an opportunity to build tourism more responsibly. The NTB (and many DMOs around the world) should be incorporating sustainability and accessibility principles into their national and regional tourism strategies. As they are rebuilding the brand image of a destination post-disaster, there is an opportunity to make tourism better for the community in which it operates.

Tourists and locals make their way around the Bouddha Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. [Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Harper]

For example, New Zealand’s response to the Christchurch earthquake, with its focus on sustainability and community involvement, is a prime example of (1) sustainable rebuilding, (2) community engagement, (3) promotion of local businesses, and (4) resilience and adaptation.

  1. After the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, Christchurch embarked on a journey of sustainable rebuilding. This involved not just reconstructing damaged infrastructure but doing so with an emphasis on eco-friendly and resilient designs. Many buildings incorporated modern earthquake-resistant features and energy-efficient technologies.
  2. A critical aspect of the recovery was the involvement of the local community. Residents were encouraged to participate in the decision-making process, allowing them to have a say in how their city would be reimagined. This engagement ensured that the rebuilt city reflected the desires and needs of the people who call it home.
  3. In the aftermath of the disaster, there was a concerted effort to support and promote local businesses. The “Shop the Sirens” campaign encouraged residents and visitors to shop at local stores, helping these businesses recover and thrive.
  4. The earthquake catalyzed Christchurch to become more resilient in the face of future disasters. The city implemented comprehensive disaster preparedness and risk reduction strategies to mitigate the impact of any future seismic events. By following the path of building back better, destinations can not only recover but emerge stronger, ensuring that the benefits of tourism extend to all and that they are better prepared to face any future challenges that come their way.

In conclusion, the case of Nepal’s recovery after the Gorkha Earthquake serves as a valuable lesson for destinations worldwide facing the aftermath of natural disasters. As we’ve seen, quick recovery in the tourism sector is possible with effective destination marketing, partnerships, and a clear message of safety and opportunity. Yet, it’s equally important for destinations to look beyond short-term recovery and use post-disaster periods to “build back better” by embracing a sustainable, community-centered approach. That means investing in eco-friendly infrastructure, supporting local businesses, engaging the community in decision-making, and integrating sustainability and accessibility principles into their tourism strategies.

Jacqueline Harper is a Masters of Environmental Studies in Geography student at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Her masters research focuses on looking at the role social and cultural capital plays in aiding tourism recovery in the Kathmandu Valley post-Gorkha earthquake. As an inspiring destination stewardship practitioner, Jacqueline hopes to work in tourism after grad school. As such, she has volunteered with the Destination Stewardship Center, researched the impacts of cruise vs layover tourism, and interned at the Center for Responsible Travel and Solimar International.

Contrasting Tourism Landscapes in Karnataka, India

The pandemic exposed the dangers of ‘tourism monocultures’ – dependence on one product only – versus a more holistic approach to tourism fare. Gayathri Hegde has been researching the differing tourism experiences of Dandeli and Joida, neighboring towns in Karnataka, southwestern India.

Amara homestay cottages decked in Warli paintings. Homestays such as this, combined with multicultural experiences, offer a resilient alternative to the risks inherent in over-exploiting a single adventure-tourism product. © Amrut Joshi

River Rafting Alone Does Not a Destination Make

The town of Dandeli, located in the serene, verdant green forests of Western Ghats in northern Karnataka, has become synonymous with ‘adventure tourism’ in the region, popularized as the river-rafting destination of southern India. Fueled by dam waters, the Kali River flows with robust furor, enthralling all visitors. The spike in tourists visiting this biodiversity hotspot brought considerable profits to tourism service providers, but it has also resulted in unchecked growth that has hampered the ecological and financial sustainability of this tourism model.

Cultivated terraces and wild forests of Joida testify to multiple layers of influence by man and nature.  © Gayathri Hegde.

What was once a novelty experience has now been reduced to a gimmick in recent years. Rafting through the rapids was initially envisioned for a 12km stretch, which would allow the adventurer to have a complete experience of rafting through multiple rapids in the flowing river. However, to offer the experience to a larger number of visitors traveling on a smaller budget, the local tourism operators started offering the rafting experience for lower fees and a shorter distance. As a result, while the tourism experience in Dandeli has become more accessible across all economic classes of the society, the overall quality of the product has taken a massive hit.

In an attempt to cater to many, even the few are deprived of the delights of nature that this place truly has to offer. With no checks in place to regulate the tourism impacts, tourists are littering the area, and most service providers take no responsibility for restoring the disturbed places they leave behind. As a result, the once verdant landscape is now dotted with plastic and tin. The sensitive ecology is home to a multitude of flora and fauna that are endemic to the region. The unchecked spurt in tourism stands to upend their lifecycle.

Then, when the government banned water-sport activities as a preventive measure during Covid-19, many tourism service providers who had anchored their business model solely on adventure tourism took a major financial hit. 

But what is unique about Dandeli? What can one take away from here? The actual potential of this place in the current tourism model does not benefit the tourist or the tourism vendor. It exploits the place without any regard to either maintaining the place or developing it more thoughtfully. 

The Joida Model 

Potential solutions to such challenges have been successfully and sensitively incorporated not too far away in the neighboring region of Joida. Both Dandeli and Joida are home to many native communities, some of them tribal, who have immense knowledge about the ecology of the place and have several unique skills in arts and crafts, which can be leveraged for the benefit of both locals and visitors. Even the cuisine that is consumed locally is unique, featuring an array of tubers, which have an annual festival. This cuisine ought to be to featured in restaurants menus and be celebrated accordingly.

Annual tuber exhibition in Joida by the tribal Kunabi people. © Amrut Joshi.

In all of this, I see hope in a cluster of homestays of the region, which are modeled on the public-private profit (PPP) sharing approach for the purpose of providing the best experience of a nature retreat and a cultural taste of regional specialties.

Even when river rafting was closed and the bigger hotels and resorts suffered losses from their adventure-tourism business model, some homestays of the region were not affected by this decision. Rafting was only an add-on to their tourism products. These homestays are run by members of the local community who offer rare view into their own cultural diversity. In the remote village of Gund, last in the region, Amara Homestays offers Yakshagana (a local theatre and dance form) workshop for its visitors and offers meals typical of the Havyaka people. These opportunities are cherished by the visitors. The owner claimed that his business is sustained by repeat visitors who look forward to this experience.

My Take

In hindsight, Dandeli-Joida offers the perfect canvas to showcase a panorama of evolving tourism trends in smaller cities in India and their impacts on multiple levels. In my experience of having travelled across different parts of India over the years and of viewing it through a cultural lens, it struck me that often the ideal tourism experience for an Indian tourist in India is hinged primarily on material comforts more than having an immersive cultural experience. The representation of local cultural identity in built and intangible forms is lacking too. 

When our tourist infrastructure does not reflect this in design or application, the disconnect is but a natural consequence. The gap here is due not only to the tourist who chooses familiar material comfort as his priority, but also to the way these experiences are curated. The idea of ‘ecotourism’ has found traction only in recent years, and we are still grappling with what it means. Textbook definitions and generic principles of ecotourism seem not very relevant for the region, while failing to recognize that the local traditional systems offer perfect solutions to this dilemma. [Editor: See instead the “geotourism approach” put forth via National Geographic.]

The contrasting tourism models I witnessed in Dandeli offer many lessons for building a sustainable tourism model in these eco-sensitive habitats, while creating a unique experience for the visitor and safeguarding the natural landscape and culture for the future.

Sangway homestay nestled in the greenery. © Amrut Joshi