Social Upliftment through Manakamana Cable Car: Rajesh Babu Shrestha
6th Sep, 2018 | Tourism Mail Crew
Manakamana Cable Car was the first cable car service in Nepal, established in 1998. The project eased the way to the important religious destination Manakamana Temple and has been a success for the past 20 years, as it attracts a million tourists each year. We spoke with the Owner of Manakamana Cable Car, Rajesh Babu Shrestha, about the development of cable car projects in Nepal and the role that Manakamana Cable Car is playing in the current scenario as a veteran pioneer in the sector.
Q: Manakamana Cable Car is the first commercial cable car service in Nepal. How well is it operating currently?
A: Yes, Manakamana Cable Car is the first cable car service of Nepal. We have been operating for 20 years. But cable car is only a medium for travelling from one place to another. The destination has been the important element, which was already in place. Manakamana is a major religious destination not only in Nepal but also in India. For that reason, we have been operating successfully since establishment until the present time. Last year we provided our cable car service to 1 million 35 thousand customers. This year, the Manakamana Temple is undergoing renovation which has almost been completed. The Manakamana Renovation Committee has planned to complete the renovation work and open the temple to the public by Dashain time. So, we are expecting an increase in the number of passengers from 2 to 4 hundred thousand. According to that projection, we are adding 3 cabins to our cable car system which are already in our possession. We will install those cabins and start operation around dashain time, with which our customers will have their waiting time cut by one hour. At the same time, we will be able to provide service to 1000 more passengers each day.
Q: What other projects are you planning after the success of Manakamana Cable Car?
A: Well, after gaining experience with Manakamana, we conducted studies at many different locations. However, the country was going through the period of insurgency and there was not a good environment for investment. 19 years after we were established, Chandragiri Hills came into operation. So, it can be said that a good environment for investment is coming again.
We are currently working for the third cable car project of the country, Annapurna Cable Car, at Pokhara. There is in fact seeing a rising interest in cable car projects in the country. We do not believe that we should manage all cable car projects in the country. But, we are a construction business with experience in operating cable car services. Because of that, we are working to provide package solutions to businesses seeking to start cable car services through our other company, Nepal Ropeway System. Through this company we are working in the Annapurna Cable Car, in the EPC model, offering a complete package looking after the design, construction, and conducting technical negotiations with the manufacturers.
Similarly, we are being approached from many other sides, for example for a connection from Dakchinkali to Chaukhatdevi, another to Pathibhara, etc. We ourselves will soon announce our very own cable car project. Meanwhile we are being approached by different third parties to establish cable car systems for them in different locations. We have already started preliminary work for the Dakchinkali and the Pathibhara projects, and intend to staft operation of Annapurna Cable Car by Baisakh. At the same time, if anyone is to approach us with a proposal to manage their cable car system, we are willing to take such a responsibility as well. So, the future for cable cars is bright in this country, althought that does not mean that one can set up cable cars in any hilly location.
Q: How suitable do you think are cable car systems for Nepal?
A: The first thing that you have to realize that, not just here but anywhere in the world, cable cars are only a medium, not an attraction. It becomes an attraction when the destination it leads to is popular. People have approached us claiming that the attraction to their proposed destination is a yearly festival or that the hill itself is however feet tall. If we look at Europe for example, most cable cars are located near popular tourist destinations, especially ski resorts. Cable cars in India are popular around religious destinations. So, I don't think its a good idea to construct cable car to a location whose only attraction is its yearly festivals. In order to invest in cable cars, one needs a popular location with strong tourist attraction. Manakamana Temple was such an attraction, with a 500-year-old history. Dakchinkali and Pathibhara are also viable religious destinations with strong tourist attraction. We must look at the viability of the destination before starting cable car construction. If by any chance we are to install cable cars without a viable destination, we must do the necessary promotion to make the destination viable.
My father used to say that if tourism and religion are to be mixed together then they will benefit each other. Developing cable car connections in these destinations would mean we dont have to rely on foreign tourists any more. Domestic tourism is a growing sector and when the destination is a religious one, it also attracts tourists from the neighbouring country India. As I remember, according to last year's numbers, 18% of the 1 million visitors at Manakamana Cable Car last year were Indian tourists, which amounts to nearly 200 thousand Indian tourists. So we must pay attention to all these factors when studying the feasibikity of any location.
Q: How much support has the government provided to cable cars?
A: We, as the pioneers of this field, did face difficulty in the beginning. As it as a totally new field, the government itself did not have much knowledge or experience in it. So when we first started, we did not get any form of VAT subsidies and other support from the government as other industries did. Eventually we entered into talks with the government and the cable car equipment was categorized legally under industrial machinery, which meant 50% concessions in customs from the customary 5% customs tax down to 2.5% and no VAT charges. Now, any cable car business will benefit from these arrangements. Naturally, the pioneers will face difficulties, as the government itself would have no experience in the field. So, talks with the government is necessary.
Thr government lends its support in licensing, company registration, and customs. Right now, we have been requesting the government to remove VAT tax from cable car tickets. The rule is biased towards cable car transport as it states VAT exemption to public transport, with the exception of cable car services. I think that cable car transport is a tourist industry, and freeing cable car tickets from VAT taxes can lower the ticket prices and drive up the number of tourists as well as increase the economic activity in the tourist destinations. Of course, this would in turn increase the government revenue, so there is no loss in exempting cable car tickets from VAT taxes. We have been requesting this from a long time, but the government hasn't taken our request into consideration.
Q: Do you think the cable car service has made Manakamana Temple popular, is it the other way around?
A: I believe that it is Manakamana Temple which has made the cable car service a success. On top of that, our promotional activities has popularized the Manakamana Temple destination abroad. Of course, there was no need for promotion of the temple to the Nepali tourist. So, it was Manakamana Temple which allowed the cable car service to be successful, and the cable car service allowed for the Manakamana area to be promoted as a destination in foreign countries, as the temple itself needs no promotion.
Q: What do you think of the new trend of cable car projects starting up around the country? What suggestions do you have to take it forward?
A: Certainly, this is a good thing as infrastructure is what brings about development. Nepal's geographical make-up also makes it very suitable for cable car transport. But, like I have already said, cable car services do not get successful just because we have hills. Cable car projects are not small investments. It present time laying out a cable car connection of 1 km requires more than 1 billion rupees of investment. So, cable car projects are definitely a good thing, they are infrastructural projects and a kind of developmental activity. But what I would like to say to potential investors is, carefully study the viability of the destination before starting the project. As I've already said, cable cars are not the attraction by themselves but simply a medium of transportation. People do not use cable cars for its own sake but to get to the destination. So, my opinion is that Nepal is full of opportunities for cable cars but that does not mean that we should go about putting up cable cars irresponsibly. My suggestion to the investoes is to pay special attention to the destination and study if it is viable.
Q: Is Chitwan Co-E working on any new projects besides cable cars?
A: Yes, we are planning to start a resort at Kurintar. We will be starting the design and planning by the end of this very year.
Q: Manakamana Cable Car has had consistentky high ratings on the travel website TripAdvisor and has received several awards from it. What do you think about it?
A: TripAdvisor is one of the largest and most trusted travel websites in the world. It can be used to book hotels, flights, and even tours. But, it is not responsible for the actual ratings displayed on the website. The ratings are basically experiences shared by people who have personally visited the destination, and which are evaluated by TripAdvisor. The company itself has no say in the ratings. So, Manakamana Cable Car getting a rating of 4.5 out of 5 from TripAdvisor is a pointer that my customers are satisfied with the service they got. The rating promotes our destination to foreign countries so that tourists looking to visit Nepal may feel that they have to visit Manakamana after looking up its ratings on the website. We ourselves look for feedback on our operation on the TripAdvisor ratings and comments as we feel it is the most trustworthy travel website. Seeing a rating of 4.5 makes us feel that the service we are providing is up to the mark.
Q: What is Manakamana Cable Car doing to attract foreign tourists from countries besides India?
A: Well, Manakamana is popular as a Hindu religious destination. The local village municipalities are also becoming more active in promoting the area. We are planning to bring in other nearby destinations as we to the public eye through joint efforts. Not far from Manakamana Temple is the temple of Bakreshwor Mahadev. The local belief is that worshipping at the temple can heal speech defects like like stuttering. Another possible attraction can be the Lakhan Cave, which is believed to be the cave where Lakhan Thapa, famous devotee of the Goddess Manakamana, passed away. He is believed to be the original priest of the Manakamana temple and the current priest is said to be the 13th generation after him. There are villages with the potential to start homestay services, as well as hiking trails incliluding an old trail leading to Gorkha Bazaar.There is also a water problem in the Manakamana area and I've agreed with the local committee to send a boring team to open up a water source after monsoon.
The tourism here is centered around the temples, but if more tourist activities were opened up, tourists will be willing to stay and explore more. The hotels in the Manakamana area altogether have a bed capacity of 2500 while previously you could count the number of hotels in one hand. Other economic activities have also increased, for example, orange fruit traders have found a local market with the temple visitors and do not have to export their products to other areas. The target is to attract foreign tourists as well, which requires a wider variety of tourist activities in the area. But, Manakamana is mainly a religious tourism destination, and that has been sufficient for us. The village municipalities are nevertheless working to develop the area to attract more foreign tourists, including paragliding tests which can attract adventure tourists. In any case, it will be difficult to attract more foreign tourists without more activities.
Q: What sort of coordination is taking place between Manakamana Cable Car, the local village municipalities, and the Manakamana temple authorities?
A: In the beginning, there were definitely some small disagreements. But we have not been successful over this long term by working alone. This has been possible due to support from the village municipalities, locals, visitors and tourists. Due to Manakamana Cable Car, the whole area from Malekhu and Muglin to Gorkha has become a tourism hub. This has benefitted the entire area and there has been teamwork and support from all parties.