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8 Oct, 2007

More Air-links Sought between Thailand & Northeast India

The shortage of direct air-links with Bangkok has been identified as the significant most important bottleneck to boosting Thai investment in India’s North East region, the strategically-located area that is a critical part of India’s Lookeast policy.

The single weekly flight by the newly merged airline Air India between Bangkok and Guwahati is “simply not enough,” said Satish Sehgal, President of the Thai Indian business forum at the North East India Trade & Investment Opportunities Week, organized to promote Thai investment, especially tourism, into India’s eight North Eastern states.

He called for at least three flights a week by the Indian carrier as well as flights by Thai Airways International or any other Thai carrier.

Organised by the Indian Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER), the Ministry of Commerce, and the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the week saw a massive turnout of about 100 businesspeople from the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.

Delegation chief Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Union Minister of DoNER, said it was the largest ever business delegation from India to visit Thailand, in pursuit of Thai investments in sectors such as tourism, infrastructure, agro & food processing, handloom & handicrafts, etc.

However, Mr. Aiyar, too, stressed the need for improving connectivity between the two countries, especially air connectivity.

Mr V. Trivedi, Joint Managing Director of Air India, noted that there is no shortage of connections from domestic Indian points.

This is largely because of the Indian government’s “route dispersal” aviation policy that mandates India’s privately-owned and expansion-hungry airlines to fly a specific number of flights to the North East region as a public service in order to get entitlements to fly to the main metropolitan cities.

As a result, private Indian airlines like Jet Airways, Jetlite, Air Deccan, Kingfisher, Spice Jet and Indigo were operating a total of 166 flights daily to one or another of the 11 airports in the region, the main one of which is Guwahati.

In addition, 36 weekly flights with a total seat capacity of 5,220 seats are being operated by Air India and 72 flights with a capacity of 3,456 seats by its subsidiary commuter airline Alliance Air. Air India has just upgraded its aircraft type from a Boeing 737 to A320/A319 aircraft while Alliance Air is using the turboprop ATR-42.

This capacity, mostly linking the NE Region to the main Indian metros of New Delhi and Kolkata, is far more than the requirements under the route dispersal guidelines. Fares to the NE Region are about 6% lower than fares in the rest of the country, Mr Trivedi said.

Since starting flights in January 2003, Alliance Air has been receiving a “grant to cover the gap between revenue and costs” from the North Eastern Council, the Indian government’s nodal agency for the economic and social development of the NE Region.

Next year, Alliance Air is planning to provide more links between the 11 NE Region airports as well to more Indian state capitals. An aircraft will be based on Guwahati to help generate an optimum mix of connectivity, frequency, aircraft utilisation and meting of traffic demand.

Asked specifically about what could be done to boost capacity to Bangkok, Mr Trivedi said seasonal charters offered the best option in the short-term until sufficient demand could be created to justify scheduled flights year-round.

One of the region’s state ministers said that the lone weekly flight between Guwahati and Bangkok was having the opposite of the actual intention; instead of promoting more Thais to Guwahati, more local North Eastern Indians were taking advantage of it to enjoy a holiday in Bangkok.

Seeking to reverse this, the states’ chief ministers and tourism section chiefs made a number of presentations highlighting the entire region’s strong potential in terms of Buddhist pilgrimage, ecotourism and nature tourism.

Mr Sehgal referred to this by saying that the NE region suffered from a case of “high potential but low awareness.” He said the regional states should appoint a joint tourism office in Bangkok and start some marketing and promotion campaigns.

Another speaker, Mr Ashish Phookan, Managing Director of Jungle Travels India, called on the Thai tourism industry to provide “support and guidance” with training, destination planning and marketing promotions. He said the NE Region would welcome a Thai tourism delegation to do a comprehensive survey of the potential.

The NE Region is of massive importance to India. Economic development and job creation is seen as being the best peaceful way to dampen local militancy. In Manipur alone, which borders Myanmar, more than 19 groups are making demands ranging from secession to greater autonomy, according to Indian media reports.

Last week, a group known as the People’s Revolutionary Army of Kangleipak (PREPAK), which is fighting for an independent homeland for the majority Metei community, carried out two attacks in Manipur, killing a number of Indian paramilitary personnel.

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