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Kathmandu-Lhasa bus likely to resume

December 9, 2010

Republica
OM ASTHA RAI

KATHMANDU, Dec 8, 2010: With Nepal Tourism Year-2011 just around the corner, the Kathmandu-Lhasa bus service, which was suspended more than three years ago, is very likely to resume within a month.

Once this service comes into operation, Chinese tourists are expected to start arriving easily in Kathmandu from Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, by surface transport.

"We are very hopeful of restarting the Kathmandu-Lhasa bus service by the very first month of 2011, keeping the tourism year in mind," Anil Gurung, acting director general of the Department of Transport Management (DoTM), told Republica. According to Gurung, work is going on steadfastly to repair the partly-damaged road that links Kathmandu to Zangmhu, or Khasa as it is popularly known in Nepal.

However, Hong Mei, a Chinese national who won the contract to operate the bus service from Kathmandu to Lhasa, said: "We are trying to operate our service within this very month." Initially, two buses from Kathmandu and two from Lhasa will be ferrying Chinese tourists. But Nepali tourists wanting to visit Lhasa by bus will be few compared to the Chinese visiting Kathmandu.

Lhasa is only around 14 hours by bus from Kathmandu. If a bus leaves Kathmandu early morning, the tourists will normally reach Lhasa by evening. However, the buses take a little longer. "It is mandatory for every bus to spend a night in Shigatse for security reasons," Mei said. "So, tourists traveling by bus will get to Lhasa only by afternoon next day."

According to Mei, tourists will be charged $70 per person for going to Lhasa by bus. Lhasa, which attracts thousands of tourists from across the world with its scenic landscape and magnificent monuments, is just 985 km north-east of Kathmandu. Khasa, a Tibetan town bordering Nepal, is just 105 km away.

Discouraging

A bus service between Kathmandu and Lhasa had started in May of 2005. However, this over-hyped service came to an abrupt halt in 2006 as it was not sustainable. "Chinese authorities were very strict in issuing visas to Americans, Indians or other foreigners," Mukunda Satyal, then director of the now almost-defunct public transport company Sajha Yatayat chosen for operating the Kathmandu-Lhasa service, told Republica. "We could not sustain it for long with just Chinese tourists and a few Nepalis."

On May 1, 1994, Nepal and China had signed an agreement on trade and transit, paving the way for the bus service between the two cities. But no serious attempt was made from either side to operate a bus service until 2004. As the agreement was to expire after 10 years, Satyal and some other officials initiated moves to renew it. "We were of the view that the agreement would help Nepal´s tourism flourish," he said.

Satyal says in retrospect that the bilateral agreement failed to boost tourism as expected. "That would be possible only if China was ready to issue visas to Indian and Western tourists wanting to visit Lhasa via Nepal," he said. "We asked the Chinese to ease the visa process for foreign tourists. But, they requested us to understand Lhasa´s sensitivity."

Satyal says China´s security concerns regarding Tibet have not changed. This means the bus service between Kathmandu and Lhasa will not function smoothly in the days ahead. "They (Chinese authorities) assume that Chinese tourists alone are enough for sustaining the service. They believe all Chinese tourists visiting Kathmandu by bus will return the same way. But, most of them fly back from Kathmandu."
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