Hampi in Karnataka, Gangtok in Sikkim, Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh are among tourist destinations that have been unlocked since the Centre launched its flagship regional air connectivity scheme UDAN to bring unserved and underserved airports on the country’s aviation map.
And with nearly 11 lakh passengers flying in the first 20 months of the scheme when airlines started over 120 air routes to 37 unserved and underserved airports, experts in the travel and tourism industry believe that UDAN that started in April 2017 has also been instrumental in pulling crowds to destinations that until now were difficult to reach because they required extended road or rail journeys.
In its list of ‘52 Places to Go in 2019’, The New York Times placed archaeological centre Hampi at number two saying, “… the Unesco World Heritage site has been notoriously difficult to reach, until now. TruJet recently began daily direct flights from Hyderabad and Bangalore to Ballari, a 25-mile drive from Hampi.”
Ballari is connected by the Vidyanagar airport, which was classified as an underserved airport under the UDAN scheme.
TruJet started its flight from Hyderabad to Vidyanagar on September 21, 2017, while its flight connecting the town to Bengaluru started on March 1, 2018. Before Vidyanagar, which is about 40 km from Hampi, the closest airport was Belgaum around 270 km away.
According to Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) data for March 2018, the Bengaluru-Vidyanagar-Bengaluru route saw 2,820 passengers. A month before TruJet started flying under UDAN, only 60 people flew the same route. Between March-November 2018, 28,677 passengers flew on the route. While not all of them may have taken the UDAN flights or translated into footfalls at Hampi, the data show the demand potential for air connectivity at tourist spots in the country.
Through Pakyong, easier access to the state of Sikkim was opened up for tourists. In October 2018, budget carrier SpiceJet connected Pakyong to Kolkata and Guwahati. Before that, to reach Sikkim’s capital Gangtok, tourists had to fly to Bagdogra that is well-connected to a number of airports in the country, followed by a 5-6 hour road journey.
The Kolkata-Pakyong-Kolkata route, on which SpiceJet operates the 78-seater Bombardier Q400 aircraft daily, started on October 4 and saw 4,790 passengers during October and November according to DGCA data.
Like Pakyong, Himachal Pradesh’s capital Shimla is also situated in difficult terrain, which the UDAN scheme has now connected. Before UDAN, Shimla was operational until 2012 and the sole carrier to fly there was the now dysfunctional Kingfisher Airlines. Both the airline and the airport wrapped up operations at around the same time but in April 2017, Shimla became the first airport to be connected under the regional connectivity scheme.
Shimla is around 360 km from Delhi by road and the Delhi-Shimla-Delhi route saw 14,041 passengers on UDAN flights operated by state-owned Alliance Air between April 27, 2017, and September 23, 2018, according to data from the Airports Authority of India. Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Air India, operates four flights a week from Delhi to Shimla, translating into a passenger load factor of nearly 88 per cent.
Other locations in mountainous regions, Pantnagar and Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand, were connected under the scheme to Dehradun. As per Uttarakhand government data, in 2017, Pithoragarh district saw a footfall of 2,43,688 tourists, while the Uddham Singh Nagar district (where Pantnagar is located) saw 1,40,794 tourists. Pithoragarh was connected to Dehradun and Pantnagar by helicopter operator Heritage Aviation on January 17, while Alliance Air started the Dehradun-Pantnagar route on January 4.
The Civil Aviation Ministry has been focusing on expanding UDAN to boost India’s tourism sector by connecting popular tourist spots by flights, for which it is working with the tourism ministry. For example, Khajuraho, despite being a developed airport has not seen regular flights due to the seasonality of the tourist location. A senior Aviation Ministry official said that the industry has been asked to develop a business model that can attract airlines to connect such destinations on a regular basis.
Incidentally, the third version of UDAN that is in the final stages of implementation listed 60 tourism routes including Bikaner-Jaisalmer-Jodhpur-Udaipur, Ahmedabad-Bhuj-Porbandar-Rajkot among others. “These circuits can become important for tourism in the states. It is important that the flights start, passengers numbers will rise eventually,” said Sharat Dhall, COO-B2C, Yatra.com.