Safety worries as quake-hit Nepal reopens heritage sites

Safety worries as quake-hit Nepal reopens heritage sites

BHAKTAPUR, Nepal - Nepal reopened its temple-filled Durbar Squares to the public on Monday despite warnings over safety, seeking to woo back tourists after a deadly earthquake that left much of the country's cultural heritage in ruins.

Traditional dancers and musicians performed at a ceremony to mark the official reopening of Durbar Square in the historic town of Bhaktapur, one of three former royal squares in the Kathmandu Valley that date back as far as the 12th century.

Hundreds of people gathered for the reopening of the square, whose historic Hindu temples, statues and opulent royal palaces drew tourists from around the world until the quake seven weeks ago.

All three former royal squares reopened on Monday but only Bhaktapur staged a ceremony.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit on April 25 killed more than 8,700 people and levelled homes and monuments in the valley, home to the three former kingdoms of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.

Nepal relies heavily on tourism for income and the head of the Department of Archaeology Bhesh Narayan Dahal urged foreign visitors to return to the Himalayan country.

"Nepal is safe, don't worry... this is our clear message for today," he told AFP in Bhaktapur.

"It (reopening) starts from today so the coming tourist season -- from September to November -- will be the right time to come. If people feel Nepal is safe, then they will come," he added.

But a warning from the UN's cultural agency that the quake-damaged structures could be unstable and pose a threat to visitors dampened the celebratory mood.

UNESCO warned last week that the squares were "still in a precarious state", and advised against reopening.

"There is still a risk that buildings might collapse," said Christian Manhart, head of UNESCO in Nepal.

"In the Kathmandu Durbar Square an entire facade is in danger of falling down, we cannot have people walking under it."

The squares, which date back to the period between the 12th and 18th centuries when the valley was divided into three Hindu kingdoms, are at the heart of local life as well as being a major tourist draw.

The whole of the Kathmandu Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for seven separate groups of monuments, including the three Durbar Squares, the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Bouddhanath and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.

Nepal's tourism industry has been devastated by the disaster, which struck at the height of the spring trekking season.

The Nepal Economic Forum, a Kathmandu-based think tank, says 80 per cent of hotel reservations have been cancelled since the quake.

Simon Watkinson, a British travel agent in Nepal to help with relief efforts, said the reopening of the heritage sites would not bring back tourists.

"It does not change anything given that foreign countries have issued advisories saying that Nepal is unsafe," he said.

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