Soon, fly into Taj city from global destinations

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS,

Agra : Global tourists may finally be able to fly directly into Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal that attracts millions every year.

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While the civil aviation ministry has moved to identify land for an international airport, the existing airport at Kheria is also being upgraded to cater to global visitors – with an eye on the tourism season from September, say officials.

Divisional commissioner Amrit Abhijat says the civil aviation ministry has asked him to identify land for the airport and start land acquisition proceedings.

But since this project could take a little time, given the recent protests by farmers against land acquisition, efforts are on to upgrade facilities at the existing Kheria airport, currently under the Indian Air Force.

“The existing Kheria airport will be upgraded and developed,” Abhijat said, briefing senior officials and civil society leaders.

The Uttar Pradesh tourism department will shortly send a formal proposal to the union civil aviation ministry to grant international status to Kheria airport, officials said, adding efforts are on to speed up the process so that flights can bring in visitors this tourist season beginning in September.

Tourism Guild president Rajeev Narain told IANS: “Visitors are wasting precious time landing in New Delhi and then driving down to Agra. We need better air connectivity.”

Agra Citizens Council secretary Sanjay Chaturvedi said, “The international airport notification No. 61/94 of Central Customs is already there; it recognises the Kheria airport of Agra as an international airport. They have all the facilities but they don’t have the will power.”

Foreign tourists are often astonished that Agra doesn’t have airport facilities. Tourism industry leaders blame the “hotel and road transport lobbies in Delhi and Jaipur for stalling and scuttling plans for upgradation of the Agra airport and resumption of air connectivity.”

Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association president Rakesh Chauhan admits, “Agra’s development is held up by these lobbies.

“If Agra had direct flights, who would stay in Delhi hotels and how will travel agencies run? How will the Expressway become economically viable? Fact is the Taj Mahal is the top priority of every foreign tourist. He would be so happy and relieved if he could directly land in Agra instead of wasting time in Delhi,” says hotelier Sandip Arora.

They don’t realise how much time is wasted due to traffic jams on the Agra-Delhi highway. A distance of just 200 km takes up to six hours and by the time they reach Agra they decide to touch and go back, Arora adds.

The latest attempts are a fallout of a recent conclave of senior officials and civil society activists, which agreed on an approach paper for Agra’s development.

Rajiv Tiwari, a senior tourism industry leader, told IANS, “The Kheria airport was connected and regular Indian Airlines flights were landing till 1992. Even chartered flights have been coming here directly from international destinations. The Kingfisher airline started regular flights last year. This year they will probably have a bigger plane and better facilities.”

Tiwari said the Kheria airport had all the required infrastructural facilities, including customs clearance arrangements.

“The present runway is under repairs and will take some months. But the other smaller runway is functional. They will need to shift half a dozen mobile towers from the vicinity and get started. Now they have night landing facilities also at Kheria. So, really, there is no hitch except political will at some level.”

The encouraging upturn in the number of tourist arrivals this year has injected a sense of urgency, say tourism industry leaders.

Agra attracted more than eight million visitors last year, with tourists thronging the 17th century monument to love, the Taj.

Senior retired officials settled in Agra say the Kheria airport is not being used to its full capacity as the fighter planes have left for Gwalior. Paratrooper training, aerial delivery plus transport activities are conducted there. After the 1971 war, only on half a dozen occasions has the airfield been used to lift paratroopers or supplies to distant places.

Private airlines want to start flights from Agra to all major centres, including Delhi, Goa, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata. “The infrastructure is already there in Agra. I don’t know what’s the big hassle,” says Abhinav Jain, a leading handicrafts and marble exporter of the city.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])