Nepal to lift quota on flights

Faced with criticism from migrant workers and Nepal’s embassies abroad for allowing only a limited daily quota of passengers to fly into Kathmandu, the government is letting airlines increase flights to meet passenger demand.

Jobless Nepali workers stranded in Saudi Arabia for the past six months demonstrated this week in their camps demanding that they be allowed home. The quota for repatriation flights had come under fire for being inadequate, impractical and driving up airfares by up to five times.

“As long as passengers have PCR negative reports, airlines will be allowed to conduct any number of flights, but the passengers will have to stay for two weeks in home quarantine,” Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Yogesh Bhattarai said in an interview on Thursday.

On 1 September, the government had allowed 10 international airlines to restart limited regular flights as well as repatriation flights from the Gulf and Malaysia stipulating that only 500 passengers would be allowed daily because of physical separation requirements at the airport. 

It increased that number to 800 this week. Bhattarai said the daily quota for arriving passengers would now be raised up to 3,000.

However, only Nepali passengers and representatives of embassies and international agencies and their families are allowed to fly to Kathmandu for the time being. No tourists are allowed, and there is still no decision on flights to and from Indian cities, where thousands of Nepalis are stranded, even though people can cross the land border from India.

Minister Bhattarai also did not explain why passengers arriving with PCR negative reports still had to spend six hours or more at holding centres in Kathmandu before being allowed to go home for self-isolation. 

Some 80,000 Nepali workers have flown back from the Gulf and Malaysia since repatriation flights began in mid-June, but there are still about 100,000 workers waiting to return. Nepali workers who were on vacation when the lockdown went into effect are also waiting to fly out.  

In addition, there are also Nepalis in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan who are waiting for cheaper flights back.

The move follows heavy criticism that the government was not allowing repatriation flights even for Nepali workers whose employers were paying for fares, and for governments like the UAE and Kuwait which have offered to fly back Nepalis for free.

The government is also getting the Labour Ministry and embassies to strengthen coordination and expedite the repatriation of stranded workers who need support for their return using the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund.

Minister Bhattarai told a webinar organised by the Society of Economic Journalists of Nepal (SEJON) that the government was preparing to allow domestic flights from 1 October. The government has twice postponed the resumption of domestic flights after a surge in Covid-19 cases since mid-June.

Bhattarai also said the government was trying to promote domestic tourism to compensate for the lack of tourist arrivals. The government was thinking of announcing two-day weekends so Nepalis are encouraged to travel within the country, he added.