Pokhara paragliders to relocate

Photo: Nepali Times Archive

Hundreds of thousands of international tourists used to visit Nepal every year, drawn by adventure sports options available in scenic Pokhara. Besides climbing, rafting bungee and zipline, the most popular was paragliding from Sarangkot.

Before Covid-19, there would be hundereds of paragliders soaring above Phewa Lake all day amidst the stunning backdrop of the Annapurnas, Machapuchre, Manaslu and Dhaulagiri. Pokhara had also become the venue for international sporting events such as the Paragliding World Cup Asian Tour.

However, Pokhara’s days as an aerial sports hub is numbered with the much-delayed airport coming into operation next year. Most companies offering paragliding and ultralight flights will have to relocate. 

Aerial sports and sightseeing companies were badly hit by the collapse of tourism, but had started to pick up with Nepali tourists replacing internationals. 

“Even as tourism was down and out following the first lockdown, there were 1,000 Nepali tourists paragliding every day in the skies above Pokhara, in part due to heavy discounts,” says Krishna Bhandari of Nepal Air-sports Association. “Pokhara residents and domestic travellers from Kathmandu, Chitwan and Nepalganj kept the business running.”

But following the second lockdown in May-June this year, paragliding services have remained shut. The pandemic also delayed the completion of the new airport, and the new opening date is July 2022.

Pokhara International Airport, which began construction in November 2017 was supposed to be completed by 10 July 2021. If not for the pandemic, the first test flight would have happened this month, followed by regular international and domestic flights.

The 2500m long 45m wide runway is aligned east-west, and departures would fly right above the city and Sarangkot, making it impossible for paragliders to be there.  

The delays are due to the fact that construction material from China could not be imported, Chinese technicians were also not able to travel. However, the airport terminal and ancillary buildings are nearly complete with runway lights and navigation equipment being installed.  

“We have extended the deadline by a year also because of the new surges in Covid cases after the lockdown as well as the possibility of the third wave, but I’m certain that we will have conducted a test flight by mid-April 2022,” says head of the airport project Binesh Munankarmi. 

Local paragliding businesses are already looking for alternative jump-off points in Syangja, Parbat and Baglung, away from the flight path of commercial flights. They also want the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) to issue NOTAMs with designated areas for paragliding as is the practice in Europe. 

Such an arrangement is a possibility also in the northern areas of Pokhara Valley, concluded a Paragliding Operation and Management Study which was undertaken two years ago. 

Commercial paragliding started in Pokhara in 2001, it now has over 69 registered companies, collectively worth Rs1 billion. There are 356 para-pilots, 342 of them Nepalis. 350 people can take a flight at a time from Sarangkot. 

In addition, there are five ultra-light companies offering sightseeing flights to the Annapurnas from the current Pokhara airport. They were also hit by the tourism collapse, and it is not yet certain whether they will be allowed to operate from Pokhara international Airport. If not, they may have to move to the unused airport in Baglung or even Manang.

“Paragliding directly or indirectly supports over a thousand people with employment, and even as we speak there are 25 Nepalis currently undergoing training to become commercial para-pilots,” says Balram Acharya, also of the Nepal Air-sports Association. 

Some say the new airport is also an opportunity to diversify paragliding and ultralight flights across Nepal and boost other local economies post-pandemic. Safety has also become a concern with overcrowding on Sarangkot, and there have been several fatal crashes in the past three years.

The terrain in Syangja, south of Pokhara, is deemed the most ideal for paragliding, and even holds international cross-country paragliding competitions and a thriving training school run by Mt Everest summiteer and adventurer Sano Babu Sunuwar.

Meanwhile, Pokhara’s new airport still has to address issues like relocating landfill sites in a 3km radius from the airport that are a bird-hit hazard for aircraft. Pokhara Municipality’s Mahesh Baral says the work of relocating landfills will gather pace once the new sites are identified. 

“The municipality doesn’t have the budget to fast-track a new landfill site. If the government had also allocated money for adjoining works involved in national pride projects, we wouldn’t have had unnecessary delays,” he adds. 

Meanwhile, the forested Ritthepani Hill on the eastern approach to the runway at Pokhara’s new airport needs 40m to be shaved off to allow safe landings and takeoffs.

Despite the government’s approval to do so back in March, it continues to be the last hurdle for the completion for the airport that can handle direct international flights, bringing tourists directly to Pokhara, bypassing Kathmandu. 


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