By Chitra Ahanthem
The Union Cabinet clearing the decks for Manipur’s Tulihal airport to be able to cater to international flights caps a long term process that is supposedly aimed at connecting the state to the international flight sector. While some infrastructural changes have indeed come about at Tulihal airport with walls being demolished and extended, the truth is that not much has changed. Strangely or rather not so strangely, all official visits to the airport to take stock of the preparations do not make any mention of the shortcomings. Heading out of Imphal this week, yours truly reported well ahead of the stipulated timing and saw that things were pretty much in the same state as described in an earlier IFP editorial in May (Internationalizing Imphal airport): The present condition of the airport is nothing to write home about as evident from the limited number of rest rooms that are hardly cleaned up and left to stink. The lack of enough leg-room and lounge area in the present domestic airport with only two beverage
counters in the area before the security checking area does nothing to instill confidence in the said ‘International airport’ status. Right now, there are no snacks counters in the waiting area once passengers get through the security check. Rather, the earlier area, which by no stretch of imagination can be called spacious has now been demarcated to create a new boarding gate where an open drain just outside the said gate smells so bad that the weak hearted may think twice of going through the gate. For many visitors to the state who come in to the state by flight, the airport is the first place of contact and surely, there is nothing worth about Imphal airport to impress visitors. To aid the ambitious reach for an international standard, it would help to first give an uplift to the present status by putting in drinking water outlets, more leg room which can be done by adding room extensions instead of demarcating the already cramped space, adding more restrooms and maintaining them well.
The Gopinath Bordoloi airport at Guwahati earlier operated as an ‘International airport’ of sorts when Air India flights to Bangkok in Thailand were in operation twice a week. When the operation of the ‘international airport’ started in April 2002, there was only the Guwahati-Bangkok sector. No other airlines were in operation other than Air India and there were no other foreign destinations apart from Bangkok. The Air India Guwahati-Bangkok flights stopped in August of the same year due to lack of commercial viability after a major loss of nearly Rs. 6 crores. During the brief months that the Guwahati-Bangkok flights were in operation, there was no more than 40 per cent seat occupancy leaving Air India with the losses. As of now, Druk Air, the Royal Bhutan Airlines is now operating only two flights every week from Guwahati to Paro in Butan and Bangkok. Interestingly enough, the Governor of Meghalaya Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary has mooted for better road connectivity of the north-eastern region as the first priority and called for air connectivity linking Guwahati – Shillong to Dhaka on to Yangon and Thailand to boost more flight consumers and trade and other relations in the said regions. Another flight sector that has been mooted with an eye on increasing flight seats is the Guwahati to Dhaka and then on to Bangkok loop.
Zeroeing on the right flight sector and route will be integral for the success of the international flight sector in Manipur. The irony is that right now, the Imphal airport does not have the capacity or the infrastructure to operate more than 10 domestic flights daily. Also, domestic connectivity is limited to Delhi, Kolkatta, Guwahati daily and through connecting flights to other destinations. The plans to make Imphal airport an International airport is going to be an important and integral part of the Look East Policy, which encompasses the region as an entry point to the South East Asian region. And that is precisely why there should be no hasty dash to bring in the ‘International airport’ tag within the set three months time. First impressions are critical for they do shape the nature of later interactions and forging relationships. This becomes more relevant in business dealings. If the opening of the flight sector is to bring in trade interest or boost tourism in the state, it should be borne in mind that those who will be heading to Manipur will come from a background of cleanliness, sanitation, good roads, warm hospitality, choice of the best hotels at the best rates and high class hospitality service. There is no doubt that the people of Manipur will be able to save money when they head to International destinations and specially in the South Asian region once the Imphal airport gets linked to the international flight sector. The critical question is, would there be enough volume of air traffic from Manipur to foreign destinations but more important, will there be enough interest for foreign travelers to head to the state?( http://www.ifp.co.in/nws-13965-internationalizing-imphal-airport/)
Adding on to the topic, even as the first international flight is set to land bringing in a hoard of officials from Myanmar; the truth is that there is again, a long way to go to the time when non chartered international flights will start. It is easy to get carried away by the buzz but everyone needs to get a reality check: till the time there is regional passport office everyone will still have to go all the way to Guwahati to apply for their passports. Interestingly, an advertisement for the first chartered flight to Myanmar pegs the visa fees at 50 US dollars. A google check gave the information that one can apply for a Myanmar visa online with visa fees pegged at 30 US dollars. The difference in the amount must surely be service charges for the private tour agency that is arranging for the chartered flight. All said and done, a lot would need to be spruced up for the Tulihal airport to be up and operating on an international airport status.
If November has arrived, can the much talked about state tourism festival which is being accused of being a thikka festival (Footnotes had earlier called the festival a mela and nothing else) be far behind? But all complaints regardless, as long as people flock to the festival and pay vehicle parking fees, entry fees and then eat kanghou bora at hiked up prices, the festival organizers will laugh all the way to their banks and the public can get bogged down to accepting the array of stalls selling shoes, clothes and even socks as part of the great tourism exercise. There is an easy way to beat the all pervasive approach to push things as a Tourism festival: simply stop going there! Amen.