Pokhara international airport’s success is up in the air

Smita Adhikari

Smita Adhikari

Pokhara international airport’s success is up in the air

Pokhara Regional International Airport is set to celebrate its formal opening with the start of the year 2023. On Jan 1, an international flight is set to make its first touchdown on the airport’s runway.

Binish Munakarmi, chief of the airport project, says aside from a few technical and logistical bumps that need smoothing, they are ready to launch the airport by the set deadline.

The airport has been a long time coming. Its genesis goes back to the early 1970s when the government acquired land for the project. But the actual work would not start until 2016 due to decades-long political, bureaucratic and financial hurdles.

Pokhara, the city of lakes, is one of the most visited tourist destinations of Nepal. It is the gateway to the Annapurna mountain region that draws tens of thousands of foreign trekkers every year.  So, naturally, opening an international airport in the city is only a matter of common sense. More tourists equals more revenue, but there is a catch.

The $300m Pokhara airport project was built with a $209m soft loan from China’s Export-Import Bank (Exim). As per agreement, 25 percent of this loan is interest free and the remaining lending is pegged at an interest rate of 2 percent, which is higher than that of other multinational financial institutions.

Besides Exim, Asian Development Bank and OPEC Fund for International Development have also supported the airport project in the forms of loans and grants.

Understandably, there is the excitement that Pokhara is finally opening its own international airport, but there is also the anxiety of financial sustainability. Nepal will have to start paying back Exim from March 2023.

To date, there is no clarity as to how the loan will be repaid. The main sources of income are landing charge and rentals. But the expected revenue will be insufficient to repay the loan.

Anup Raj Joshi, the airport spokesperson, says they plan to raise flight numbers—both international and domestic—and include night flights to generate revenue.

Officials expect to earn Rs 250m from domestic flights alone. But this is just a projection and it remains to be translated into reality. And even if the airport did make the projected turnover, it will be only enough to cover the maintenance and operation costs.

There will be other additional expenses as well. Sabin Phuyal, senior accounts officer of the airport, says the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) would cover those expenses.

So far, Himalaya Airlines of China and Jazeera Airways of Kuwait are the only international carriers that have agreed to launch flights to and from Pokhara. No other international airlines have signed formal agreements to connect their flights with Pokhara Regional International Airport.

Jagannath Niraula, CAAN spokesperson, says they are hopeful more international airlines will sign agreements once the airport is up and running. He believes that Pokhara airport is more viable than two other international airports of Nepal.

Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport is the oldest and the busiest airport in Nepal. The second, Bhairahawa’s Gautam Buddha International Airport, which launched its international flight services in May, is struggling to attract both flights and passengers.

There is a clear lack of inter-agency coordination and communication on how to increase the number of flights in the new airport.

The city’s tourism potential is the key to the success of the airport but throughout the airport development project, the local tourism council has largely stood on the margins.

Pom Narayan Shrestha, chairman of Pokhara Tourism Council, says they have more recently participated in interactions with CAAN, Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) and other concerned bodies in regards to the launch ceremony of the airport. If the airport and CAAN officials are willing, he says they are ready to make contributions from their side.

Krishna Acharya, a local tour operator, says they have not received any call for support from concerned authorities.

Annapurna Conservation Area attracts a great number of foreign trekkers every year. Pokhara is the main starting point for travelers visiting the area, but the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), which looks after the overall aspects of this protected area, does not know what is going on with the airport.

Raj Kumar Gurung, who heads the Pokhara office of ACAP, says they are rarely invited to the meetings concerning the airport development.

Kashi Raj Bhandari, director of NTB Gandaki Province Office, admits they could not promote the airport from the tourism development aspect as well as they would have liked.

Still, he is optimistic about more international airlines connecting their flights to Pokhara in the near future.  In order to promote international flights and bring in more tourists, he says NTB Gandaki Province Office and CAAN are already in talks with almost a dozen international airlines. Not everyone shares Bhandari’s optimism of Pokhara international airport becoming a success, at least not in the short term. It is going to be a long haul journey to success.

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