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Spreading the wings to Nepal

Druk Air initiating exploration of a new route connecting Pokhara/Lumbini to Gaya

The Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA), under the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, has requested approval for direct commercial flights to two cities, Pokhara and Bhairahawa, in Nepal to enhance air connectivity and cater to a growing number of Buddhist tourists.

Through its Civil Aviation Authority, Bhutan’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport has requested that Nepal allow direct commercial flights to two of its cities. The letter, dated July 28, was addressed to Pradeep Adhikari, the director-general of Nepal’s aviation authority.

The letter obtained by Business Bhutan states, “We kindly request the Civil Aviation of Nepal to grant the necessary approval for operating international flights from Pokhara and Gautam Buddha International Airport.” It is also mentioned that the BCAA and airlines assured that they would work diligently to ensure a safe and secure operation at all times.

The envisioned direct flight routes include connections to Nepal’s Bhairahawa International Airport (Gautam Buddha Airport) and the recently operational Pokhara Regional International Airport.

This move comes as the country anticipates a substantial influx of Buddhist tourists who can benefit from the convenience of direct flights to these new destinations in Nepal, aiming to facilitate convenient travel for tourists from the country.

In the official letter, Bhutan highlighted that international flights on these routes would be particularly convenient for tourists from countries other than Nepal and Bhutan. The letter stated, “We believe that these proposed flights aim to facilitate seamless travel for both Bhutanese and Nepalese citizens, as well as international tourists, who wish to explore the beauty and cultural richness that our countries offer and further strengthen the friendly ties between our nations.”

Asking about the possibility of getting approval, the Chief Executive Director (CEO) of Drukair, Tandi Wangchuk, said that nothing could be said at this juncture.

However, the CEO said that the Bhutanese registered aircraft has the right to operate on the Nepal-India route but no specific city point in Pokhara.

None of the airlines in Bhutan are operating on these routes now. On viability, as there are no flights operating on these routes, no statistics could be gathered.

However, Drukair explored operating this route on the assumption that those passengers who visit Bhutan also visit either Pokhara or Lumbini as part of a packaged tour.

The CEO shared that, due to the absence of proper statistics, Druk Air has declined the idea of operating this route this season.

However, for the winter season of 2023–24 to connect another pilgrimage circuit, the Gaya–Bangkok flights have been planned so that Bangkok passengers can connect to Gaya transiting Paro as a 6th freedom hub.

Informing Business Bhutan, the Information Officer and Spokesperson of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), Gyanendra Bhul, said, “We will move in the process of reviewing the Air Service Agreement (ASA), and then commercial operations shall start between Paro and Pokhara and Bhairahawa by airlines of both countries.”

The bilateral ASA between the two countries was signed a decade ago and allows for 218,000 seats per year. Two Bhutanese airlines are among the 30 international carriers that operate at Tribhuvan International Airport.

Despite seven months of operations, foreign airlines have yet to approve regular flights to Pokhara International Airport.

However, Bhutan Airlines faces no such impediment as it can access Bhutan through the Gulf-348 route, flying through the skies of Eastern Elam, and connecting to Pokhara via Kathmandu. This unique route capability allows Bhutan Airlines to operate flights to the airport without any obstacles.

The Bhairahawa-Bhutan (Paro) route also has no airspace issues. Druk Air flies four times a week to 10 Asian destinations, including Nepal, from Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu, using ATR and Airbus A-319 planes. Bhutan Air has two flights a week from Paro to Kathmandu and connects with five other Asian cities, using an Airbus A-319.

Sangay Rabten & Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu