13-19 June 2014 #711

Lumbini set to take off

An upgraded Bhairawa airport will launch Buddha’s birthplace as an international pilgrimage site
Matt Miller in LUMBINI

After centuries of being forgotten, and five decades of neglect by Kathmandu, the birthplace of the Buddha is about to be connected directly to the outside world with a new international airport that could transform the economy of Nepal’s third-largest city and the central Tarai.

Nepal urgently needs a second international airport to service a growing working diaspora, as well as for flights diverted from Kathmandu due to bad weather. However, plans to upgrade Bhairawa airport to accommodate large jets had been as much in limbo as the masterplan to develop Lumbini itself.

Now, both the Gautam Buddha International Airport and the Sacred Garden are getting top government priority. Buddha’s nativity site is as important for the world’s 350 million Buddhists as Bethlehem is for Christians and Mecca is for Muslims.

The $97 million airport is partly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and is expected to serve 760,000 passengers per year by 2030, with more than half of them visitors to Lumbini, which is 20 km to the west. The new runway length will be 3,000m which means it can accommodate Airbus 330s and Boeing 777s, and the existing runway will be used as a parallel taxiway. The project plan also includes a new terminal building, advanced navigation and other upgrades.

Airport expansion Project Manager Murari Bhandari says construction will begin in the next few months once the contractor is finalised, and the airport should be operational by 2017.

“Once the airport is upgraded and operating, it will have a multiplier effect on the local economy, and people of the central Tarai will benefit both from the construction as well as the completion of the airport,” Bhandari said. The number of pilgrims to Lumbini has been increasing, but most make day trips from Kathmandu or India because of the shortage of proper accommodation. Direct flights to Lumbini could increase pilgrims from China, Japan, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Nepali workers in the Gulf would also no longer need to come to Kathmandu to fly in and out.

China has seen the largest increase in visitors to Lumbini, with a 40 per cent rise in the past year, and aviation officials hope the new airport can also directly serve Chinese cities.

BUDDHA PORT: A model design of the upgraded Bhairawa airport expected to be completed by 2017.

The tourism industry is also gearing up to meet the expected demand for services, and new five-star hotels are waiting for the project to get the go-ahead.

“They are watching for the airport to start construction,” says Bhandari, “they assured us that once work starts at the airport, they will also start building.”

The renovated airport's biggest contribution could be to provide an alternative to Kathmandu’s over-crowded airport which is often closed due to poor visibility. Nepal also needs another airport to accommodate heavy jets for relief flights in case an earthquake damages Kathmandu airport.

But perhaps an even more difficult task of the Lumbini Development Trust is maintaining the sacredness of Lumbini as a spiritual destination. Many argue that Lumbini is already overbuilt.

The Trust is overseeing the execution of the 36-year-old master plan of Japanese architect Kenzo Tange which envisaged the Sacred Garden as a tranquil and leafy place of meditation.

However, unregulated construction of large temples have become eyesores. The other challenge is to ensure that the surrounding mainly-Muslim villages feel a sense of ownership about the benefits of Lumbini’s visitors.

UNESCO video Towards a Sustainable Lumbini, the Birthplace of Lord Buddha

Read also:

Whose Lumbini is it anyway?, Trishna Rana

Finally, a new airport?, Ramesh Poudel

Lumbini’s rebirth, Kanak Mani Dixit

The Kathmandu airlift, Naresh Newar

Buddhaland, Indu Nepal