Liquor ban in Bihar translates into Nepal’s gain as liquor tourism gains momentum

Bihar government’s recent directive of imposing a blanket ban on alcohol has turned the fortunes of towns in Nepal, adjoining the Indian borders, bolstering a niche segment of tourism. Travel agents, however, fear huge losses from foreign footfalls as they are likely to head to nearby states with similar offerings and plenty of watering holes.

88Nepal has been in midst of a political slugfest, since the onerous process of drafting the constitution was initiated, causing a fair degree of internal strife and, consequent, disturbances. Adding to that, the devastating earthquake that rocked the Himalayan kingdom has hampered the larger tourism industry. However, a recent political development in Bihar is proving to be a blessing in disguise for the mountain nation. In an attempt to court women voters of the state, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, staying true to his poll-time promise of prohibiting the sale and consumption of all forms of alcohol, declared a blanket ban that was enforced from the first of April. This decision comes after the state had recently imposed a ban on sale and consumption of country and spiced liquor in rural areas, making Bihar one of the few states in the country to go dry. The government has also decided to revoke alcohol licenses of hotels, bars and clubs. Unlike Gujarat, where foreigners and NRIs are issues special quota permits for thirty days, there are no exemptions.  On a national level, states like Gujarat, Nagaland, parts of Manipur, Lakshadweep and, from 2014 in a phase wise manner, Kerala have enforced a ban on the sale of liquor. 

Coming back to Nepal, Biratnagar and Janakpur – small towns of Nepal bordering Bihar– are swarming with tourists from Bihar in the summer season, giving rise to a niche segment, liquor tourism Most of these tourists cross-over the border from adjoining areas, stretching from Jogbani in the east to Kishanganj in the west, in search of watering holes. Better days for pubs and bars aside, budget hotels in towns adjoining the Indian border are registering never before occupancy rates. Lodge-owners in Janakpur are cashing in on the influx by increasing room-rates by over thirty percent. “We get bus-loads of people from Bihar; it is like a perennial wedding season. Even with an increased tariff, we are clocking around 85-90 occupancy rate on most days,” said a senior staff of hotel Rama in Janakpur.

Apart from an apparent loss in revenue from tourism, on the intra-state front, there is a lurking fear of loss of revenue from, both, domestic and international footfalls.  Some argue that, Bihar’s major pull has always been Buddhist tourists, coming pre-dominantly from ten-odd countries from Southeast Asia. Although, a fair share of footfalls comes purely for religious tourism, blanket ban on alcohol will act as a deterrent, feel a number of travel agents. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a prominent travel agent argued that the state, by choosing to keep hotels in the purview of the ban, has signaled that tourism does not figure in the list of state government’s priorities. “There is already a dip in number of foreign tourists into Bihar, compared to the previous year. Severe heat-wave may be one reason, but liquor ban is definitely going to hurt us in the coming months. Foreigners will find Uttar Pradesh and Nepal as better options because of their well-rounded tourism products,” he said.

CM Nitish Kumar has reasoned that social ills that accompany liquor consumption were reasons that drove the government to take this drastic measure. But, many industry experts believe that instead of imposing a ban, states would do better for themselves, if they increase excise duty and use the additional revenue to create sensitization on over-indulgence. Instead of evolving mechanisms to educate people, states are resorting to out-right ban, which has severe implications for the future of tourism and hospitality industry. More so, by adopting extreme measures to enforce the ban, the government is relegating way too much authority to the local police, increasing chances of corruption and smuggling. States like Kerala are already battling with instances of smuggling of spurious liquor since the ban came into effect, raising suspicion about Bihar taking a similar route in coming months. In any case, tourism is likely to be the first causality of this diktat.

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