Direct air links between Nepal and Sri Lanka are set to resume after a break of two and a half decades with Colombo-based carrier Mihin Lanka planning to begin services by February, Tourism Ministry officials said.
The low-cost airline, which is owned by the Sri Lankan government, has officially applied for operating authorization to conduct daily flights between Kathmandu and Colombo.
“We have received a diplomatic note from the Sri Lankan government seeking operating authorisation and are waiting for the carrier’s complete documents,” said Suresh Acharya, joint secretary at the ministry.
During the 1980s, Nepal Airlines Corporation in its previous avatar used to operate direct flights to Colombo. It was forced to suspend operations following the LTTE armed movement in Sri Lanka. Since then, there have been no direct air links between the two countries.
Nepal and Sri Lanka had been discussing flight connectivity since the end of the LTTE armed movement in Sri Lanka. The two countries signed an Air Service Agreement on January 23, 2009.
“The initiative to operate flights is also part of the leaders’ commitment to link all the Saarc capitals with direct flights,” said Acharya. He added that direct air links would boost Nepal’s tourism as visitors from Sri Lanka are expected to grow in the coming years.
According to Tourism Ministry statistics, 32,736 Sri Lankan tourists visited Nepal in 2013. Of the total arrivals, 30,582 or 94 percent entered Nepal via surface route. Around 98 percent of the Sri Lankan visitors are pilgrims here to visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, said travel trade entrepreneurs.
Arrivals from Sri Lanka, which used to be the third largest source market for Nepal after India and China, dropped sharply last year. Arrivals in 2012 amounted to 69,476, up from 59,884 in 2011. Sri Lankans are the lowest stayers in Nepal after Bangladeshi and Thai visitors. A Sri Lanka spends 7.88 days on average in Nepal.
“As Nepal is not directly linked with Colombo, almost all the travellers from Sri Lanka enter the country overland at Bhairahawa.
As they are handled by Indian tour guides, they do not contribute significantly to Nepal’s tourism,” said Acharya, adding that direct links would boost numbers and revenues.
Meanwhile, three new international airlines are poised to serve Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) from January. Malaysia-based Malindo Air, Dhaka-based Regent Airways and Chengdu-based Sichuan Airlines have applied for operation authorization. All the three carriers plan to operate daily flights to TIA from their respective hubs. At present, TIA is served by 26 international airlines.