India launched its 100th airport at Pakyong in the north-eastern state of Sikkim in the Himalayas. When fully operational, it will emerge as a boon for tourism business in the entire eastern Himalayan region, including Darjeeling and Sikkim.
Besides Bagdogra airport in Northern West Bengal, which was the sole airport in the region albeit with limited night-landing facilities, Pakyong at a distance of 130 km will work as a new gateway for domestic and foreign tourists for both leisure and incentives. Darjeeling is a popular incentive destination that includes experiential stays in the region’s famed tea estates.
Five per cent of India’s visitors go to Darjeeling, accounting for about 500,000 arrivals in a year while neighbouring Sikkim receives about 50,000 inbound visitors. Moreover, Sikkim is susceptible to landslides so any disruption in its only National Highway 10 cuts off the state from the rest of the country. Most international travellers with tight itineraries are likely to avoid the risk of getting stuck, especially during the monsoon months.
“Pakyong is an answer for them, too,” said Sandipan Ghosh, secretary of the Eastern Himalayan Tour and Travel Operators Association. Thus far capacity constraints at Bagdogra airport affected the inflow of international visitors as many wish to combine Darjeeling and Sikkim in their itinerary.
“As a whole, we expect a significant increase in foreign visitors here. Around 10 per cent of Sikkim’s 8000 bed capacity and 7000 of Darjeeling are of premium class. But existing average annual occupancy rate is between 50-60 per cent. So, the region can well accommodate the anticipated additional arrivals even without any major fresh capacity augmentation,” Ghosh added.
Final visitor growth will depend on number and routes served by Pakyong. Not only Kolkata, the prime gateway city in the eastern region, Sikkim must start flights from Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai, too.