Nepali Times
Back to the future

TOUCHING DOWN: Yeti Air aims higher at Syangboche, 3720m
There was a time when Nepal was dotted with dirt airstrips, connecting remote valleys with short take-off and landing aircraft. The advent of roads and the inability of the national airline to provide services meant most fell into disuse.

Now, several private airlines are moving back to the future to revive old airstrips and open remote areas to a new model of tourism. As roads replace old trekking routes, operators say flying tourists to these isolated airfields will mean formerly far-flung areas are more accessible to hikers.

Yeti Airlines recently spun off all its STOL (short take off and landing) aircraft into its subsidiary Tara Air, which will specialise in mountain tourist charter flights. This week, Tara revived flights to Syangboche, and is planning test landings in Langtang and Rara soon.

Fishtail Air has just added a Eurocopter Euriel AS350 B3 to its fleet so it can extend the altitude of its operations to 6,000m for heli-skiers and high mountain rescue teams. The chopper-type aircraft made it to the record books in May 2005 by landing on the top of Chomolungma.

Buddha Air, on the other hand, is taking another route to expansion: it is soon going to launch a Pokhara-Lucknow flight with ATR-72 turboprops to tap into the Indian tourism and pilgrim market. The airline wants to make Pokhara a hub for regional destinations.

Yeti's Himalayan air treks

Airline hopes to boost mountain tourism by bringing disused airstrips into operation

YAK AND YETI: A Yeti Airlines Pilatus Porter on the ground at Syangboche on Sunday morning after its STOL subsidiary Tara Air started charter operations to the airport. The airline hopes to boost mountain tourism by bringing disused airstrips built in the 1960s back into operation.

Nepal's biggest domestic airline, Yeti Airlines, has just set up a subsidiary for mountain tourism to remote area airfields. Tara Air has taken over four Twin Otters, two Dornier 226s and two Pilatus Porters from Yeti to specialise in destinations with short-takeoff-and-landing runways.

Nepal's trekking industry is being dramatically transformed because of roads snaking up the mountains over what used to be hiking trails. The round-Annapurna trek, for instance, is now roadless only for a small stretch along the Marsyangdi. In the Everest region, a road has cut the Jiri-Lukla trail from five to two days.

Not everyone is happy about this, but there is overwhelming demand from locals for roads. Trekking agencies are responding by offering flights to high mountain valleys from where tourists can explore hitherto isolated areas that used to take too long to get to.

This week, Tara began services to Syangboche, the sloping dirt airstrip that was carved out of the mountains above Namche Bajar in the 1970s by the Japanese-owned Everest View Hotel. Tara is offering a scenic early morning 'Everest for Breakfast' flight to Syangboche that returns to Kathmandu by 10AM.

"It will add a new thrill to mountain flights, since we will be in the mountains, will touch down and give tourists a real feel for the place," says Daman Pradhan of Yeti Holidays, which is promoting the concept at the World Travel Mart next month in London.

Pradhan is also working on a week-long 'Trans Himalayan Flying Trek' that will fly tourists across Nepal, touching down at remote airfields from Simkot, Rara, Dolpa, Dhorpatan, Manang, Langtang, Syangboche right up to Taplejung in the east. Tourists will spend the night in tented camps at the airfields, making for tours similar to those catering to whitewater rafters. Yeti Airlines hopes to attract high-value tourists by using the full potential of the Himalaya as
a brand.

Operators are now pressing the civil aviation authorities to recommission airfields in Langtang, Dhorpatan, Jiri, Rara and an abandoned grass runway in the Budi Gandaki valley. All these airfields were once serviced by Pilatus Porters operated by Royal Nepal Airlines and the United Nations in the 1970s.

Capt Praful Vaidya, who flies Tara Air's new Pilatus Porters, is enthusiastic about the Swiss-built aircraft. "This plane is ideal for flying in the mountains and especially for the rough airstrips," he says.

Kunda Dixit in Syangboche

Talcha airport, Mugu district

Simkot airport, Humla district

Syanboche airport with Namche Bajar to the left

International Pokhara - FROM ISSUE #474 (30 OCT 2009 - 05 NOV 2009)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)