Pokhara’s paragliders must relocate, but where?

A tourist enjoying paragliding against the backdrop of Machhapuchre in Pokhara this week. Photo: RSS

As Pokhara’s new international airport prepares to open by mid-2022, paragliding and ultralight companies that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to the city will have to relocate. But given Central Nepal’s stunning terrain and scenery, there are plenty of even more exciting options.

Pokhara’s Sarangkot Hill is a popular jump off point for paragliders but it falls within the 26 x 6km airspace that the new international airport will require for medium-haul twin jets that it will handle. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) has now concluded that there is no alternative but to relocate them.

“Air safety rules prohibit recreational flights inside this airspace which is why we have to move paragliding and ultralight activities elsewhere,” explained Dev Chandra Lal Karna of CAAN, adding that tourism operators have been advised to take their business to adjoining Syangja, Parbat and Baglung districts.

It is not just the parargliders that will be affected, but also the ultralight companies that currently operate from the existing airport. They, too, must move because of the heavier and faster aircraft that will be landing and taking off in the new facility.

But local aerial sports operators have been reluctant to relocate, saying they can continue from Pokhara if proper safety guidelines are issued. They have purposed a flight curfew two hours a day either in the morning or in the afternoon to allocate that time for paragliding and ultralight flights.

“CAAN says we can’t run ultralight and paragliding here but they haven’t told us how to proceed from here nor given us any alternatives,” complained Balaram Acharya of the Nepal Air Sports Association who is runs a paragliding company in Pokhara.

However, aviation experts say flight curfews do not make sense and there are plenty of alternatives for the aerial sports companies – including Syangja for paragliding and Baglung’s unused airfield for ultralights.

International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards do not allow any aircraft to operate within the airspace of an international airport and neither is it safe to do so.

"It is technically impossible to fly paragliders and ultralights near what is going be a busy airport, it has to follow strict international safety guidelines," says infrastructure expert Surya Raj Acharya. “There should be no other activities within its airspace.”

Indeed, Pokhara’s existing airport is already operating at maximum capacity with up to 40 domestic flights a day to Kathmandu, Jomsom, Bhairawa, Bharatpur, Simara, Biratnagar and Nepalganj. More flights are planned to Janakpur and Bhadrapur by private airlines.

In addition to catering to increased domestic flight frequency, the new airport will also handle international flights to India, China, the Gulf and Malaysia. The current airport does not have night landing facilities, although the new one will.

Acharya is also of the opinion that airports should be built away from populated tourist destinations. "Today we face paragliding problem, tomorrow it will be noise pollution," he adds. “A fast-track Butwal-Pokhara highway would have meant that flights would not be needed between the two cities.”

Commercial paragliding started in Pokhara in 2001 and now has over 69 registered companies, collectively with an annual turnover of Rs1 billion. There are three ultralight companies operating from the current airport, and one hot air balloon operator.

All companies had been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of tourism, and business has just started to pick up with mainly Nepali adventure-seekers. There are 1,200 people employed by aerial sports companies.

Paragliding operators are also reluctant to relocate because they think it will cause further losses, as they had already established Pokhara as the hub for adventure sports in Nepal.

Says Pom Narayan Shrestha of Pokhara Tourism Council: “Those interested in adventure tourism know Pokhara is the place to go but moving away means rebranding their products from scratch, and this would impact the entire tourism sector.”

Tourism planners say it is economically viable to move adventure sports activities from Pokhara to sites in nearby districts, but no more than one and a half hours away and have already come up with some suggestions.

The article was translated by Aryan Sitaula from the Nepali original in Himalkhabar.

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