Himachal airports remain shut, hit hospitality trade

Flights to and from Himachal Pradesh have been suspended for over a month now, and this has started impacting the tourism sector - a major source of income for the state, officials said here on Friday.

State tourism and civil aviation officials said that Kingfisher was the only airline that operated regular flights between Delhi and the state. However, it discontinued operations in the state before it was grounded in October.

All the three airports in Himachal - Jabbarhatti near Shimla, Gaggal near Kangra and Bhuntar near Kullu - have been shut since September, and if authorities failed to open them before Christmas and New Year's eve, the tourism sector would be hit severely, said members of the hospitality sector.

"Closure of the Shimla airport has started affecting the hotel industry. The flights should be restored ahead of the Christmas season, otherwise we will lose tourists to Srinagar," D.P. Bhatia of Clarke's Hotel here said.

Former union minister and five-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh met union Minister for Civil Aviation Ajit Singh in New Delhi Thursday and apprised him about the problems the state is facing after the closure of the airports.

"Virbhadra Singh met the union minister and discussed the problems faced by the travellers. He urged him to introduce Air India flights at all the three airports in Himachal. And if it is not in a position to operate the flights, some private airline be roped in," a statement quoting Virbhadra Singh said.

He also urged the civil aviation minister to explore the possibility of expanding the length of the airstrip at the Jabbarhatti airport to facilitate landing of bigger aircrafts.

State Tourism and Civil Aviation Director Arun Sharma told IANS the department was also trying to convince private operators to start services in the state.

Government officials said that landing aircrafts at the Shimla airport was a challenge, as it was one of the three table-top airports in the country. It is called table-top because of the deep gorges surrounding the runway.

"Although several safety measures have been adopted at the Shimla and Kullu airports, the night landing facility should be further strengthened to facilitate landing of aircrafts at both the airports," an airport official said.

The state government plans to develop a world-class airport in the state to give a boost to the tourism industry.

Sharma said that land for the airport were identified in Solan and Hamirpur districts, but a final decision was yet to be taken.

The annual tourist arrival in Himachal Pradesh crossed 1.5 crore (15 million) in 2011.

The number of foreign tourists visiting the state has more than doubled from a little over 200,000 in 2005 to nearly half a million in 2011.

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