Country hopes investment will follow new constitution
By Kirsty Taylor
Nepal is moving to entice Korean tourists and investors as a peace process nears conclusion with a new constitution for the Himalayan country.
The top Nepali envoy in Korea, Raja Ram Bartaula, wants his country to become the world’s top Buddhist pilgrimage site thanks to the development of Buddha’s birthplace.
But he said the mountainous country is still “desperate” for foreign investment to meet basic power and transport needs.
“We are quite desperately looking for foreign direct investment in our hydropower sector,” he said. “All the sectors are liberated for investment but we are giving priority to hydropower because we are facing power shortages at this time. This is winter and it is the big energy use season for power demand, and the supply is less. There are huge power shortages for 10 hours every day in Kathmandu.”
Nepal is trying to get back to business following a decade-long insurgency that left 12,000 people dead and 100,000 people displaced according to the UN.
But Bartaula said things were changing in the nation with a population of a little less than 30 million.
“We were passing through a transition period and now we are waiting to get a new constitution that will soon come out and we can have economic progress to explore,” he said.
The country was blighted by Maoist insurgency from 1996 until a peace agreement in 2006. It abolished its monarchy in 2008 and Nepali congress members have said they are confident that they will complete a new constitution by May. They are still debating the best style of governance to stabilize the new republic.
Bartaula said the number of Korean companies working in Nepal dropped during troubled times from six to just two or three.
“We had some insurgency and because of this we lost many businesses,” he said.
Korean firms such as the Nara International Himalayan Spring Water company have halted work in Nepal.
But an investment seminar in Seoul this month is being held to show that the country is now more stable and ready for business. Bartaula is organizing the Jan. 31 conference along with the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry to attract Korean companies to his country.
“We hope to invite all important investors,” he said. “I want to see all of them and to see how Nepal can be an important destination for their investment.
“For them they can make huge profits because we have guaranteed many things. It is win-win because the investor can get a return from their investment and it can benefit Nepal in terms of energy and in terms of development.”
Back to business
“Very confidently I can say this because all the political parties have assured that they will not do any harm for the manufacturing companies or businesses,” he added.
“We have guaranteed their capital and investments and there will be very less disturbances in the industrial sector. Nobody can predict the scattered or smaller incidents but at large it will be very peaceful and a very conducive environment for industry.”
Some Korean companies have been quick off the mark. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company started work on a new hydroelectric power station in Chamalya in 2011, and is conducting a feasibility study for another facility on the Modi Hola river.
“We have the means to produce more power because we have many rivers,” said Bartaula. “Our capacity needs to be 40,000 megawatts to be commercially viable. At present we are just producing 600 megawatts.”
He said the country’s current demand sits at about 1,000 megawatts but has the potential to produce 83,000 megawatts with the right investment.
Chung Suk Engineering Company is also conducting feasibility studies on a metro system for Katmandu and a 136-km railway to run from Birgunj-Bardibas in the country’s southern plain land.
But the picturesque landlocked nation is still one of the world’s poorest countries. The UN estimates that 40 percent of Nepalese people live in poverty, with most depending on agriculture for a living.
As well as attracting businesses, Nepal is also keen to draw tourists and their pocketbooks to the world’s 10 highest mountains, including Mount Everest, and historic Buddhist sites.
Path to prosperity
A national tourism drive attracted close to 1 million visitors last year. Three flights a week link Seoul to Kathmandu and Korean tourists have grown from 20,000 in 2010 to an estimated 25,000 in 2011.
Now the country is trying to scale new heights by developing infrastructure.
“We need to give more attention and more focus on developing tourism and promoting it to other countries,” said Bartaula.
Visit Lumbini year will start on Jan. 14 to attract visitors to the birthplace of Buddha.
Nepali ambassador Kamal Prasad Koirala recently wrote to President Lee Myung-bak requesting that he correct Korean textbooks that state that the Shakyamuni Buddha was born in India instead of Nepal.
Some U.K. writers erroneously recorded that his birthplace, Lumbini, was in India while the country was under British occupation. But Nepal is promoting that the site is 32 kilometers inside its border, a fact The British Museum conceded late last year.
“That is the holiest place for all the believers in Buddhism,” Bartaula said.
The site, about 270 km from Kathmandu, is reachable by plane or road. But other historic Buddhist areas including the archeological site of Buddha’s palace and the place his remains were buried are only linked by gravel roads.
“For many centuries this site has been underdeveloped,” said Bartaula. “After finding the right location of the birthplace, the government has been developing it as a center for peace and as a holy site for Buddhists.”
While Lumbini’s central area has been developed, Korea is helping to draw up a master plan to transform the wider area into a peace city.
Korea International Cooperation Agency has offered $2 million for the plan, with about 143 experts set to visit Nepal from Korea in the next 18 months to carry out the project.
“Declaring visit Lumbini year means to develop Lumbini as a central holiest place for the Buddhists and developing the facilities for the pilgrims,” Bartaula said. “All religions have their one place, Mecca for the Muslims and Christians have Jerusalem but these places are already developed. We do not have the facilities if 10,000 Buddhists visit at once we can’t accommodate them. We have to develop the facilities and the transportation network.”
The Nepali embassy is organizing a tourism roadshow in Seoul in May to encourage tour companies to create tour packages for people traveling to Nepal.