2 Dec 2019
Nepal's New BRI-Backed Airports Set to Be Arriving Ahead of Schedule
Both Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara Regional International Airport tipped to be touching down early.
The new Pokhara Regional International Airport – one of Nepal's biggest Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects – is now on course to be completed ahead of schedule. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the facility – which will serve Pokhara, Nepal's second city and a popular tourism destination – should be receiving flights by the end of next year.
When the new airport opens it will mark the completion of one of Nepal's most significant collaborations with China to date. A US$305 million project, it will replace a nearby short-runway domestic airport and see Pokhara's thriving trekking and tourism industry served by direct international flights for the first time, while also providing better connectivity to Kathmandu and a number of other Nepalese cities.
In the race to become the country's second international airport (after Tribhuvan International Airport, which serves Kathmandu, the country's capital), Pokhara has narrowly lost out to Gautam Buddha International Airport, near the city of Bhairahawa and some 265km to the west of the capital. Gautam Buddha is also being developed by a Chinese contractor – the Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group – and is again running well ahead of schedule.
Commenting on the progress of the two projects, Yogesh Bhattarai, Nepal's Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, said: "Gautam Buddha International Airport will be completed by December this year and will be ready for regular flights by March next year. Furthermore, if the current rate of progress is maintained, Pokhara Regional Airport will be ready for flights by December next year."
Constructing an international airport close to Pokhara has been a long-gestating project for the Nepalese government. Indeed, the land for the project was originally purchased way back in 1974. It was not until 2013, however, when talks began in earnest between the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal and China CAMC Engineering (CAMCE), that progress finally started to be made and, the following year, an agreement to go ahead with the project was ultimately signed. In March 2016, the EXIM Bank of China then executed a loan agreement with the Nepalese Ministry of Finance to provide the $215.96 million in funding required to deliver the airport as planned. Finally, in July 2017, work on the project officially commenced.
Once completed, the airport will have one 2,500-metre runway, to be built to a 4D standard – which will see it have the capacity to accommodate international grade aircraft, including the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 757. This will mean that direct flights from South and East Asian destinations will be able to land at Pokhara for the first time.
In terms of landside infrastructure, this will include a 10,000 sq m international terminal and a 4,000 sq m domestic terminal. In addition, Buddha Air, one of the country's leading domestic carriers, is constructing an on-site hangar capable of accommodating an aircraft up to the size of an Airbus A319. In total, more than 500 workers – both Nepali and Chinese – have been involved in completing work on the project.
It is anticipated that the airport will make a significant difference on a number of fronts. Not only is it expected to play a key role in attracting more international tourists to Pokhara, but it is also seen as likely to alleviate the existing problem of congested domestic demand. Although Pokhara is located less than 200km west of Kathmandu, travel by road takes seven or eight hours due to poor conditions and challenging terrain. By comparison, a direct flight from the capital takes just 20 minutes.
Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Kathmandu