Bhairahawa airport is nearing completion, but no foreign airline has applied to serve itOfficials say test flights can be conducted by April after the navigation and surveillance equipment is installed.
The good news is that most of the civil works at Nepal’s second international airport have been completed. But there’s bad news: The airport won’t be completed by its March deadline, and officials are reluctant to announce the exact date the airport will come into operation.
The new facility, once completed and in operation, is expected to give respite to the country where there is no alternative international airport in case of an emergency. International airlines have to divert to Dhaka, Bangladesh or Kolkata, India if Nepal’s sole international airport in Kathmandu has to be closed by foggy conditions or a disaster.
The key objective of the airport that is spread over 533 hectares is to serve as the gateway to the pilgrimage destination of Lumbini in south central Nepal where Buddha was born. The airport will have a 3,000-metre-long and 45-metre-wide runway.
“We are trying to make things happen. Our target is to complete all tasks by mid-March,” said Prabesh Adhikari, chief of the airport project during a media preview on Wednesday. “Obviously, we are near success. But we can’t announce the exact deadline for its operation.”
Adhikari said that the contractor hired to install communications, navigation and surveillance equipment including the metrological gear has pledged to finish fitting the machines by March-end.
“If the contractor Aeronautical Radio of Thailand completes installing the navigation and surveillance equipment on schedule, test flights can be conducted by early April.”
Travel trade entrepreneurs and the Lumbini Development Trust are optimistic that the airport will be a game changer for Bhairahawa and Nepal’s overall tourism industry.
“Yes, we want to establish Lumbini as a world pilgrimage destination. And it was not possible without having connectivity. The international airport is here finally,” Hari Rai, chief of information and public relations officer at the Lumbini Development Trust, told the Post.
At least 1.5 million tourists, two-thirds of them Nepalis, visit the holy place annually. The average length of stay of foreign visitors in Nepal is 12 days, but they spend only 1.88 days on average in Lumbini, according to Rai.
Delays in the airport's construction worry travel trade entrepreneurs. According to project chief Adhikari, they achieved break-neck progress in one and a half years after the project was bogged down by a series of controversies, and completed 54 percent of the work. The project achieved only 30 percent progress from 2015 to 2017.
Recently, the Asian Development Bank Country Director for Nepal Mukhtor Khamudkhanov had said that the project was a good example of how leadership and improved implementation arrangement could positively impact the progress of a project.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal awarded the Rs6.22-billion Gautam Buddha Airport upgradation contract to China’s Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group in November 2013.
Of the total project cost, the Asian Development Bank has provided $58.50 million ($42.75 in loans and $15.75 million in grants), the OPEC Fund for International Development has provided a $15 million loan and Nepal government will bear the rest of the cost as counterpart funding.
Naresh Pradhan, project officer-transport at the Asian Development Bank, said that Kathmandu airport was becoming severely congested. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that international passenger movement will swell to 7.29 million in 2028. By 2035, international passenger movement is expected to reach 9.92 million.
The airport in Bhairahawa is nearing completion, but the government has not received any applications from airlines wishing to fly here.
In a recent interview with the Post, senior travel trade entrepreneur Yogendra Sakya said that infrastructure would not ensure that planes will come filled with tourists and land in Bhairahawa. “It needs massive promotion and the government should announce big incentive packages to attract foreign carriers.”
Development activities are booming in Bhairahawa. The once sleepy market town in the Tarai plains was thrust onto the international stage after becoming the gateway to the pilgrimage destination of Lumbini. Proliferating factories and a rapidly spreading transportation network have turned Bhairahawa into an economic powerhouse.
Lumbini, which attracts international pilgrims as the birthplace of the Buddha, has observed the construction of large-scale infrastructure including a bevy of luxury hotels after talks on construction of the international airport began in 2010.
“Yes, connectivity counts. Infrastructure is booming and everyone is optimistic that Lumbini, the centre for Buddhist pilgrimage, will be positioned as one of the iconic products in the global tourism market,” said Rai.