Why Puri does not need an airport
By Dr Sambit Dash
The demand for an international airport at Puri has been on the rise of late. Last week, in response to Rajya Sabha member Sujit Kumar’s question, Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri informed the House that the Airports Authority of India (AAI) was asked to carry out pre-feasibility study of the site as proposed by the State Government. This whole clamour for an international airport in Puri and use of AAI resources are misplaced and point to poor policy thinking. Efforts should rather be directed towards other transport facilities, for, the ultimate aim is enhancing number of tourists visiting Puri and providing them with better facilities.
The nearest airport, an international one at Bhubaneswar, is a mere 60 km away from Puri. Considering the fact that tourist footfall in Odisha is not gargantuan, this is the single biggest reason why an airport at Puri is not essential. This does not suggest that connectivity to Puri need not be given importance. It should rather be the focus of governments, both State and Union, to create better connectivity. There can be many ways in which the connectivity to Puri can be improved. While several trains ply from Bhubaneswar to Puri, there could be a dedicated “experience” trains plying at higher frequency, with information providers, booking facilities and so on. Bus services from Bhubaneswar airport, either linking to a main hub, or direct, can be planned. However, given the large seasonal differences in tourist footfall, economic viability of such services needs to be worked out. With very good road connectivity, facilitating the already existing as well as newer car rental services is much easier and feasible than building a whole new airport. Services cannot and should not be only to cater to tourists arriving at airports; but those that cater to tourists of all economic strata.
Biju Patnaik International Airport at Bhubaneswar, which is seeing increased traffic and cargo movement, definitely will need a second site sooner than later. A little over a year ago, Hardeep Singh Puri had stated in the Rajya Sabha that three sites proposed by the State Government for second airport at Bhubaneswar were found inadequate and a fourth one was under construction. In the same reply, he had stated that the Union Government does not construct greenfield airports within 150 km of existing ones in a State. Considering his reply last week, this goes on to show how policy inconsistencies occur in the face of political appeasements.
In an earlier news report, a senior government officer was cited mentioning that airport in Puri would be the main international airport of the State, while Bhubaneswar would cater to domestic flights. This again does not seem to be based on sound policy, for reasons like Bhubaneswar being the capital and business hub of the State and vulnerability of Puri to natural calamities like cyclone is much more than the capital city. Cyclone Fani damaging Bhubaneswar airport is a cruel reminder about viability of one at Puri, if one was to come up there.
In the year 2019, a total of 18,31,511 tourists arrived in Odisha by the air route. Of these, only 19,117 were foreigners. Odisha’s share in India’s tourist arrivals stands at a mere 1.05 per cent. Of the domestic travellers visiting tourist places in Odisha, 60 per cent are from within the State, 14 per cent from West Bengal, followed by 2.41 per cent from Andhra Pradesh. As per a study, about 36 per cent of tourists arriving in Odisha visit Puri. Both neighboring States of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are well connected by Railways and road through which majority of tourists from those States enter Odisha.
Tourism in Odisha has been the potential that has not been tapped thereby holding back the State from gaining economic leverage from this sector. Of late, attempts are being made to bolster the image. Some of them like the Eco-Tourism endeavors are paying dividends. But in these scheme of things, airport at Puri is certainly not a necessity and AAI would be spending its resources unnecessarily in studying feasibility. Focusing on tourism development in Puri would rather entail increasing number of beds in the government-run Panthanivas that has stagnated at a measly little over 100 in the past 5 years.
__ The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus). He comments on public policy, healthcare and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash