The importance of direct air access for the promotion of destinations in a mountainous country like Nepal cannot be overemphasized. As the most important part of 4 A’s in tourism, air accessibility tops three other – attraction, accommodation and amenities. It was air access that opened up the country to the outside world in the dying days of the 1950s. It was also internal air accessibility that helped promote destinations like Everest and Chitwan, among others.
Our forefathers used to recount romantic stories of their walking adventures to Lukla and Chitwan. And before our Chinese friends built the Muglin-Narayanghat arterial road, the only fastest means of travel to Meghauly, the sole tourist gateway to Chitwan then for all purpose and intent, was via a long hard drive along the beautiful, winding Tribhuvan Highway, commonly known as by-road, followed by some more drive on the smooth and shiny East-West Highway up to Bharatpur airfield before galloping on the dirt track for two or more hours to Meghauly. All in all, the road journey took 10 hours or more. Despite deserted roads, verdant greenery, fresh air, the journey generally discouraged tourists from travelling to the ‘heart of the jungle’ that explains the insolvency of the first manager/owner of an iconic lodge.
In the late 1970s, a three-day river rafting down the then pristine Trisuli and Narayani provided an exhilarating alternative mode to reach the park directly, offering the sights and sounds, not the current din and dust, of the rural splendour. But it was the air access that made Chitwan instantly famous and highly coveted by the tourists, especially among the affluent upper strata of social and economic class.
Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation’s introduction of regular 25-minute flights to Meghauly was the harbinger of high-end tourists to Chitwan and riches to the new owner of the iconic lodge. And Meghauly ‘airport’ was just a grassy landing strip, nothing fancy, with a small thatched hut for the terminal and an al fresco departure lounge. There was a basic but chic and clean wooden restroom close by. But for the air access, Chitwan and the iconic lodge, both of which became synonymous with wildlife tourism in the subcontinent, would not have found the dizzying success it did.
Direct air access to Thakurdwara, Bardia: the need of the hour
Tourism had crept into Bardia National Park almost 25 years ago, pioneered by the same iconic lodge in Chitwan. Sadly, in all these years, Bardia tourism has remained stagnant for various reasons including lack of direct air access. To this day, tourist arrivals have failed to keep pace with the burgeoning lodges and homestays, despite the country attaining a glorious landmark of one million tourists in 2017.
People familiar with the history of wildlife tourism would be aware that direct air access to Meghauly airstrip, one of the many entries points to the park, helped in the massive promotion of Chitwan National Park which today hosts six-figure tourist numbers while Bardia has to satisfy itself with measly five-figure arrivals.
At present travellers fly to Nepalgunj and then drive for three hours to Bardia National Park. Some drive to Samjhighat on the Surkhet road for a four-day raft to Bardia on the Bheri River. Yet some drive for 14 hours or more from Kathmandu to Bardia, which was one of the few destinations hit the hardest by the political turmoil in the country, resulting in severely stunted growth in tourism. What also works against Bardia is an atrociously high tourist fare to Nepalgunj. So it is not just the distance but also the fare that is tamping the tourist numbers to only a few thousand. An environmental-friendly airport or a grass airstrip in Bardia similar to the one in Meghauly will help Bardia to attract a few hundred thousand upper crust tourists in 2020. The tourism ministry and the local government must give a serious consideration to this that can change the face of Bardia through the flow of dollars in the tourism pipeline.
The government is seriously embarking on completion of SIA at Nijgadh in seven years. The GBIA in Bhairahawa, a 20-minutes flight away from Kathmandu, is due for completion in less than a year. When completed, it is expected to fly in tourists directly from the source countries without rerouting via Kathmandu. An international airport is also coming up in Pokhara to bring in tourists directly, sidestepping Kathmandu. To sum up, Lumbini and Pokhara will have their own direct air access with the tourist markets independently of Kathmandu in a move to attract more tourists.
The government should, therefore, be cognizant of an urgent need of a domestic airport or even an airstrip near Thakurdwara at Bardia National Park for the convenient travel of domestic and international tourists. At the moment, tourists still have to take a back-breaking and dangerous road journey lasting 14 hours or more from Kathmandu or fly to Nepalgunj and then drive 3 hours to Thakurdwara, the sole entry point of Bardia National Park. Chitwan has several entry points. The distance and the unavailability of the direct flights have deprived Bardia of its rightful share of tourists despite surging monthly arrivals in recent days.
It is the government’s ultimate responsibility to ensure that tourists visit the biggest and probably the best park in the country. In order to do so, the first measure the government needs to undertake is to introduce direct air access to Bardia National Park by constructing an airfield like Meghauly at or around Thakurdwara, which will be a game changer.
The government, therefore, must urgently resolve the lack of direct air access to Bardia so as not to deprive it of its rightful share of tourists when two million tourists come marching in 2020, in the next 13 months.
We can turn Bardia into an exclusive high-end wildlife tourism destination for the likes of British Prince Harry and the Oscar-winning Hollywood hunk, Leo DiCaprio, the star of ‘The Revenant.