Kathmandu/Lumbini: Four and a half years after a devastating earthquake in April 2015 ravaged Nepal, the small hilly nation aims to reclaim its standing on the world tourism map with plans to attract Buddhist pilgrims from India, Bhutan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, besides countries like Japan, with a spanking new international airport close to the birthplace of Buddha.
Potential economic spinoffs of the plan include new investments in tourism infrastructure such as hotels, which in turn is expected to spur employment generation in a country described as one of the poorest and slowest growing in Asia by the World Bank.
Christened the Gautam Buddha International Airport, the facility is being developed with financial assistance from the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB).
China’s Northwest Civil Aviation Construction Group is constructing the airport for which the ADB has provided $70 million. The airport is being developed under the South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project. It is expected to be completed by March next year, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the temblor that killed some 9,000 people, said Prabhesh Adhikari, a senior official of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
Situated in Rupandehi district, some 280 kilometres from Kathmandu, the upcoming airport will function as a second gateway to the country, which is home to the some of the world’s tallest mountains, catering to tourists wanting to visit Lumbini. India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia have already expressed interest in starting airline operations from the upcoming airport, said Naresh Pradhan, the ADB official overseeing the airport project.
“You know Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) – 12 million tourists come there every year (to perform the Hajj pilgrimage). It is a very important Muslim religious site," said Suraj Vaidya, national coordinator of the Nepal Tourism Board’s “Visit Nepal 2020" campaign that was rolled out in April this year. Pointing out that Nepal was home to Lumbini, the famed birth place of the founder of Buddhism, Vaidya said in 2020, “we plan to have the biggest and the best organised Buddha Jayanti (marking the birth anniversary of Buddha)."
According to official statistics, 11.73 lakh tourists visited Nepal in 2018. Of this, nearly 2 lakh were Indians, 69,640 from Sri Lanka and 26,355 were from Bangladesh.
Developing the Gautam Buddha International Airport was also aimed at diversifying tourism to other parts of the country that has so far remained concentrated in central Nepal, Vaidya said.
“It is very sad to see people from your country go abroad and work very hard and send back money. We need to create new investments and we need to create more jobs. And for Nepal one of the biggest challenges we have is how to keep our young Nepalese in this country. The place to employ young dynamic people is tourism. Developing tourism is part of the national economic strategy to get Nepal back on track" after the April 2015 earthquake, Vaidya said.
Besides Buddhist pilgrims, Nepal is also hoping to woo Hindu pilgrims from India in a big way. There are plans to celebrate “Bivah Panchami"—the marriage of the Hindu deity Ram and goddess Sita in Janakpur as part of “Visit Nepal 2020," said Vaidya, adding that he had met Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to discuss plans for a joint celebration of the festival next year.
India and Nepal already have a bus link from Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita to Ayodhya, where god Ram is believed to have been born.
“We are also working with other states including Bihar on developing tourism potential which can be win-win for both the countries," Vaidya said. There were also plans to develop a tour involving holy sites related to the Hindu god Lord Shiva also as part of the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign, he added.
At present, the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu is Nepal’s only international airport. The risk of having just one international airport was felt acutely at the time of the April 2015 quake, officials said. The temblor spared the TIA which was used to its fullest capacity to receive international aid. “If the TIA was affected by the quake, we would not have been able to get relief and aid to the people as fast as we did," said civil aviation official Adhikari. “We do have days when aircraft cannot land at the TIA due to bad weather," he said. A second international airport in the Terai plains of Nepal would also help improve the economy of the region resulting in greater employment generation, Adhikari said.
According to ADB’s Nepal country director, Mukhtor Khamudkhanov, Gautam Buddha International Airport is part of several connectivity projects that the international financial institution is supporting to bolster regional economic activity. Last year, the ADB had approved $180 million under the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) programme for widening the East-West Highway connecting India, Khamudkhanov said. Besides roads and airports, SASEC also includes plans to develop ports and railroads to match the needs of countries in the region -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.