Wednesday, October 04, 2023

India-China feud keeps international planes out of Nepal airport

His hotel offers breath-taking mountain views from the town of Lumbini in Nepal - Buddha's birthplace. But a hoped-for surge in tourist numbers has failed to materialise, blamed in part on tensions between Nepal's giant neighbours India and China.

Lumbini saw close to a million visitors in 2022, according to the Lumbini Development Trust - and it was this number the government was betting on when it spent $76m (£61m) to build the Gautam Buddha International Airport, which opened in May last year.

Domestic tourists make up most of the visitors, with just less than a third travelling from neighbouring India.

The terminal, also known as Bhairahawa Airport, lets tourists fly directly to Lumbini instead of travelling 250km (155 miles) by land from the capital, Kathmandu.

Yet the anticipated travel boom never materialised, something travel industry experts attribute to a lack of early promotion and incentives to international airlines.

"The government asked us to expand tourism infrastructure saying more international flights would come. But my hotel is two-thirds empty. I am now struggling to repay my loan," Mr Sharma tells the BBC, adding that he is millions of rupees in debt.

Travel industry experts argue tourist arrivals, particularly from overseas, will go up if there are regular scheduled international flights operating out of Bhairahawa airport.

But Nepali officials say Delhi has refused to allow big passenger planes to fly west through its airspace - meaning planes cannot fly over India to reach the Gautam Buddha airport. Access to Indian airspace would mean shorter flights at lower cost.

Some in Nepal also believe that Delhi is wary of the fact that the Gautam Buddha airport was constructed by China's Northwest Civil Aviation Airport.

The airport is also located near Nepal's border with India - west of where the two Asian giants' troops clashed last December in the Arunachal Pradesh region, just seven months after the terminal opened to international traffic.

04/10/2023 Anbarasan Ethirajan/BBC

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