Nepal is readying to sign an air service agreement (ASA) with Cambodia on December 1 allowing at least 14 weekly flights in either direction.
A high-level delegation led by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and including the civil aviation minister is scheduled to arrive in Nepal on November 30 to sign the pact, according to Tourism Ministry officials.
“Signing a preliminary ASA with Cambodia is one of the items on the agenda,” said Suresh Acharya, joint secretary at the ministry. “We have sent a draft ASA to the Foreign and Law ministries for their approval,” he said, adding that they would be submitted to the Cabinet for final approval. “We have not fixed the flight frequency, but initially we can start with 14 weekly flights,” Acharya said. According to him, the ASA will include third and fourth freedom traffic rights.
Cambodian officials said they wanted to establish air links with Nepal, particularly the upcoming Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa, during talks at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Air Services Negotiation Event in Antalya, Turkey in 2015. “Our priority is also to bring new airlines to Gautam Buddha International Airport,” Acharya said.
The national pride project in Bhairahawa is envisaged to serve the fast rising business and industrial hub of Bhairahawa and facilitate international pilgrimage to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. The much delayed airport project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2019. The government plans to open the airport next year to help realise its goal of hosting 2 million tourists during the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.
Acharya said many foreign carriers, particularly from Buddhist nations, wished to fly to Bhairahawa. The international airport in Bhairahawa was constructed to promote Lumbini as a Buddhist pilgrimage hub. The government has been planning to promote Buddhist pilgrimage in a big way. According to International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, the Buddhist Circuit comprising Nepal and India is an important pilgrimage destination for the 450 million practising Buddhists as well as travelers interested in history, culture or religion.
Currently, a majority of foreign tourists visiting Lumbini are handled by Indian tour operators. They enter Lumbini overland from across the Indian border, and spend a few minutes looking around, according to travel trade entrepreneurs. As a result, the local community and the country have not been able to reap benefits from the day-trippers.
Foreign tourists usually stay for an average of 13 days in Nepal, but most travellers visiting Lumbini barely stay for 30 minutes, according a study conducted in 2013.
The survey titled Visitors Survey and Observation revealed that 72.6 percent of the visitors spent only half an hour sightseeing in Lumbini. The study was conducted among 293 tour groups by UNESCO’s Japanese Funds-in-Trust Project in January 2013. It showed that 21.8 percent of the visitors spent less than an hour, and 5.5 percent more than an hour in Lumbini.
As per the IFC report, there are about 450 to 480 million Buddhists across the world. They practise different branches of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism, including East Asian Buddhism, has 185 million followers. This is the predominant form of Buddhism practised in China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam.
Theravada Buddhism, with over 125 million followers, is the form of Buddhism predominantly practised in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and India. Vajrayana Buddhism has approximately 20 million followers. This form is practised in the greater Tibetan and Mongolian regions, the Himalaya, Bhutan, parts of western China, the Russian Federation and Nepal.
The report said that the rationale for investing in the Buddhist Circuit by India was to improve the experience of visiting these sites and link that to the potential of tourism to deliver sustainable and inclusive economic growth through job creation and income generation opportunities.
Since 1963, Nepal has signed ASAs with 38 countries, with New Zealand and Vietnam being the latest signatories.