By Gopal Sharma
BHAKTAPUR, Nepal (Reuters) - Nepal re-opened hundreds of earthquake-damaged monuments at heritage sites on Monday, trying to draw visitors back to the Himalayan nation less than two months after two devastating tremors killed about 8,800 people.
At least 743 monuments were damaged by the quakes that struck Nepal on April 25 and May 12, including centuries-old temples, monasteries and palaces listed as world heritage sites by UNESCO.
After the first of the two earthquakes struck during the peak tourism season, thousands of visitors fled the country, leaving hotels empty and trekking companies without customers.
Authorities quickly sealed the damaged monuments amid safety concerns and to protect thousands of intricately carved statues from being stolen from the rubble.
The cash-strapped government opted to push ahead with their reopening despite cautionary statements issued by UNESCO last week that visitors to the ruins should "reconsider the necessity of visiting those sites" because they were still in a "precarious" state.
Bhesh Narayan Dahal, chief of the government's archaeology department, said many of the structures were now safe, and visitors would be required to wear safety helmets in places that might be insecure.
Last week, the government said it would send international experts to study the geology of its mountains to assess if it was safe to open Mount Everest and other hiking trails to climbers and trekkers.
Hundreds of climbers abandoned their attempt to scale Mount Everest this year after an avalanche triggered by the quake killed 18 people at base camp after the April 25 earthquake.
At a ceremony marking the opening of Bhaktapur, a 12th century town 20 km (12 miles) east of the capital Kathmandu, officials sought to make the best of a bleak situation.
"This is an opportunity," said Tulsi Prasad Gautam, chief of the tourism department, standing next to the remains of the famous Kedarnath Temple that collapsed in the April tremor.
"You can't see earthquake rubble anywhere," he said.
Before the earthquake, more than 1,000 tourists, each paying up to $15, visited the monuments in Bhaktapur every day, said Dipendra Prajapati, the town's tourism official.
On Monday, there were none.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Krista Mahr and Jeremy Laurence)