Fifty-one-year-old Kanchha Gandarva roams through the tourist hub of Thamel playing lilting tunes on his sarangi as he hawks the traditional violin to visitors. It has been over a month since the shops here returned to full-fledged operation after the earthquake, but Gandarva has not sold a single piece.
Gandarva, who has been selling sarangis in Thamel for the last three decades, is worried about the future. “There aren’t any tourists to listen to my songs,” laments the sole bread earner of a six-member family. Gandarva used to make a good living selling sarangis.
But the terrible April 25 earthquake has hit his business hard. A descendant of traditional village minstrels and hailing from Dudhakuna in Tanahun district, Gandarva says life has become hard with Thamel wearing a deserted look.
Life has become hard for everybody in Thamel as it struggles to bounce back one and a half months since the deadly quake drove away tourists.
According to the Thamel Tourism Development Council, the tourist hub has suffered business losses amounting to more than Rs10 billion after the disaster. More than 80 percent of the tourists coming to Nepal visit Thamel. An estimated 300,000 people are directly employed by the travel trade business es in the area.
“Everything looks normal here. The shops are open, but I don’t know why tourists are not coming,” Gandarva says. “These days, I can count the number of foreigners on the fingers of one hand.” He used to earn around Rs1,000 daily playing his sarangi and was able to sell at least one instrument per day. However, the earthquake has brought his business down to zero.
“These days I am not in a position to pay for rice and vegetables,” a worried Gandarva says. “I don’t have enough money even to pay the house rent.” Gandarva has rented two rooms at Baneshwor for which he pays Rs7,000 per month.
The quake has also damaged his house in his village. However, he did not rush back home nor did he beg for relief from the government. All he wants is to request the government to bring back the tourists.
Isreal Rehaim, 54, has a similar story to tell. Originally from Mahottari district, he has been selling flutes in Thamel for the last three decades. There is no one to hear the soothing melodies of his flutes on the once busy streets of Thamel.
“I used to sell at least seven flutes and earn Rs1,200 daily on an average. Now it’s been a month, and I have not earned a penny,” says Rehaim. He has been planning to return to his village.
These two street vendors are not the only sufferers. Thamel itself has suffered. Purna Rai, 52, who runs one of the biggest curio shops at Narsingh Chowk, says his business has dwindled since the earthquake and he has nothing else to do besides shooing away flies at his shop.
On a normal day in the past, Rai used to earn up to Rs50,000. But his daily earnings have presently dived to Rs500. “If things keep this way, I will have to shut down my shop,” he says. He pays Rs50,000 every month as rent to Guthi Sansthan and employs seven people.
From money exchange counters to laundry shops, and from pashmina and thanka shops to travel agencies, all the business es have been hit hard by the mass departure of tourists after the earthquake.
“We opened our money exchange centre a week after the quake. But it’s been a month and we have received only six people,” said Lokendra Dhamala, one of the employees at Mahakali Money Exchange in Thamel. He has no idea how his owner is going to pay the rent for the office space which amounts to Rs30,000. “If this trend continues, I could lose my job,” he said.
There are more than 3,800 business outlets in Thamel. A five-star hotel and a number of three-star properties are also located in the area.
Ram Saran Thapaliya, president of the Thamel Tourism Development Council, says the mass departure of tourists after the quake has impacted tourism business es significantly.
“Now, it’s time to send a positive message to the international market that Nepal is safe to visit. Tourism entrepreneurs have also joined hands to promote Nepal during this crisis period,” he says.
“The government is organising an international donors conference this week, and there is a need to organise a mega tourism conference to spread the message that Nepal has a lot to offer.”