It was another milestone in the aviation sector last week as Druk air successfully launched its much-anticipated inaugural flight service to Gelephu, thereby also opening up the third domestic airport in the country.
Local residents there have been endowed with hope that the domestic airstrip would bring mammoth changes in the area. Development works will sprout up, tourists will flock in droves in the town, and inevitably bring economic boom. But how far would this be true?
The same hope, declaration, and dreams were shown back then when domestic air services were launched in December last year to Bumthang and Trashigang, except it didn’t turn out the way it was meant to.
Domestic flight services to these two places have been temporally called off now. Six months after these airstrips were launched; both airports are being repaired once again today.
The government earlier assured that both runways will be resurfaced and domestic air services re-launched by September end, coinciding with the time of the upcoming tourist season, but it is already behind schedule by a month now. Works are still going on.
There is no denying the benefits domestic air services would bring to the locality and the people in that area, but we simply cannot also brush aside the economic feasibility aspect.
Are domestic air services really feasible in the country going by the events unfurling now? How did domestic air services to Bumthang and Trashigang fare before it was temporarily suspended? How many people actually availed this facility?
We simple need not rake the brains for answers. The numbers are comprehensible. The tour or stay of more than half of the tourists visiting Bhutan is in the western regions of the country, while the locals have no option than to mull over a lifetime before paying the exorbitant fares.
Now, another domestic airport opens up with even greater promises than the other two under repair. But the question is how would it benefit the economy in Gelephu.
This border town has a score of its own problems too. The porous border, security problems in southern Bhutan in the 90s, and security issues along the Assam border have stagnate the growth of the town for more than a decade.
The lack of infrastructure and tourists’ amenities such as standard hotels and resorts are another setback. The town doesn’t have much to magnetize tourists. The number says it all. How many tourists even actually visit or have a night halt in Gelephu? Or for that matter, how comfortable or enthusiastic are tour agencies in making changes in the tour packages that they offer?
It is, therefore, becoming imperative to revisit our experiment with domestic air services in the country. Airstrips in Bumthang and Trashigang were literally no less than a debacle. Would Gelephu head towards the same way?