The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that has killed more than 3,800 people in Nepal has also destroyed or damaged many historic sites — temples and squares cherished by two major religions that draw hundreds of thousands of tourists who fuel a big part of the country's economy.
"The situation of the cultural sites is absolutely dramatic," said Christian Manhart, executive representative of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, to Nepal. As many as half of the country's significant historic sites "are totally destroyed," he told U.N. Radio.
Nepal is home to seven official U.N. World Heritage sites, four of them in the Kathmandu Valley around the capital.
Three of them — the Durbar Squares (royal plazas) of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur — were almost completely destroyed, UNESCO said.
The squares are home to monuments central to Hindu and Buddhist culture. In the Kathmandu square, which dated to the 5th century and was home to Nepal's royal family until the 1800s, UNESCO estimated that 80 percent of the temples were significantly damaged.
Also, the World Heritage site of Sagarmatha National Park, which includes Mount Everest, was also "severely affected," UNESCO said.
The earthquake also destroyed the nine-story Dharahara Tower, one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the Himalayas. Built by the royal family in 1832 as a watchtower providing panoramic views of Kathmandu, it was rebuilt after it was destroyed by another earthquake in 1934.
Perhaps miraculously, however, there was little to no damage at the gardens of Lumbini, where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born in 623 BCE, Manhart said.
The damage is expected to severely hit tourism, which makes up 8.2 percent of Nepal's gross domestic product and 7 percent of total employment, according to data provided by the World Travel and Tourism Council.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory urging people to cancel all non-essential travel to Nepal, saying that for the foreseeable future, "infrastructure is fragile and access to basic resources, including health care, could be limited."
Britain, India and Australia issued similar advisories. The New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade Commission warned bluntly: "There is high risk to your safety in Nepal."
"We have received calls to cancel almost 90 percent of close to 1,000 bookings to Nepal," Sharat Dhall, president of Yatra, an online travel service, told Business Standard, India's leading business newspaper.
Exodus Travel, a major international tour operator, said it had canceled all trips through the end of May. Meanwhile, the Intrepid Foundation, a nonprofit development group funded by several international tourism companies, set up a relief fund, promising to match 100 percent of all donations.
"The situation in Nepal is heartbreaking," said James Thornton, managing director of the Intrepid Group. "This is a part of the world that is close to the hearts of many of us, and we know that, like us, travelers will want to help."