Nepal’s Gautam Buddha International Airport Faces Tourist Woes Amidst India-China Tensions – South Asia Time

Nepal’s Gautam Buddha International Airport Faces Tourist Woes Amidst India-China Tensions

 October 4, 2023  

Kathmandu — Nepal’s highly anticipated Gautam Buddha International Airport, located in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, was expected to usher in a tourism boom, but a year after its opening, it is struggling to attract international visitors. The stunning bright orange hotel that offers breathtaking mountain views stands mostly empty, leaving its owner, Bishnu Sharma, in financial distress.

The government invested a significant $76 million to build the airport, aiming to boost tourism in the region. Lumbini witnessed nearly a million visitors in 2022, primarily from domestic tourists, with a minority arriving from neighboring India. The airport aimed to make it easier for international travelers to reach Lumbini directly instead of the arduous 250-kilometer overland journey from Kathmandu.

However, the expected influx of tourists has not materialized, partly due to a lack of early promotion and incentives for international airlines. Bishnu Sharma, owner of the Star Holiday Hotel in Lumbini, expressed his concerns, stating that his hotel is now two-thirds empty, and he is struggling to repay his loans.

Travel industry experts emphasize that the key to attracting more international visitors lies in the operation of regular scheduled international flights from Bhairahawa Airport. However, a significant roadblock exists, as Indian authorities have refused to allow large passenger planes to traverse their airspace, preventing direct flights to Gautam Buddha Airport. Access to Indian airspace would reduce flight costs and duration significantly.

Some in Nepal speculate that India’s reluctance is tied to the airport’s construction by China’s Northwest Civil Aviation Airport and its proximity to the India-Nepal border, where tensions have flared in recent years. The border dispute between India and China, coupled with growing political tensions between the leaders of both nations, has further complicated the situation.

The Gautam Buddha Airport was conceived as part of Nepal’s plan to alleviate congestion at Kathmandu Airport, the country’s primary international gateway. However, it has struggled to attract international flights, much like Pokhara International Airport, which also faces similar challenges. Pokhara Airport, constructed with a $215 million loan from China, has seen limited international traffic since its opening in January.

Currently, the combined traffic at Gautam Buddha and Pokhara airports consists mainly of domestic flights. Aviation experts argue that the terminals require a substantial influx of international travelers to remain financially viable.

Tri Ratna Manandhar, former director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, stressed the importance of international flights and called for proactive diplomacy to persuade countries like India to open their airspace to commercial flights destined for Nepal.

While Nepal Airlines has recently launched a weekly flight from Bhairahawa to Kuala Lumpur, signaling potential opportunities, the country’s Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, Sudan Kiranti, remains optimistic about resolving the airspace issue with India through dialogue.

The fate of Nepal’s ambitious plan to boost tourism through its newly built airports now hinges on diplomatic efforts and cooperation from neighboring countries, as the picturesque region continues to wait for the influx of tourists it had hoped for. ( Input form BBC and agencies)