In March 2019, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal announced that flights to Lukla from Kathmandu were being redirected to Ramechhap. The decision was taken in an attempt to reduce air congestion at the Tribhuvan International Airport, one of only two international airports in the country, which becomes overburdened during spring and autumn every year when mountaineers and trekkers from around the world fly to the Everest region.
But, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, the decision naturally came to a standstill. It was only reinstated recently, in October this year, just as tourist flow and flight frequency began to increase in the country.
This new rule to redirect flights has been met with a lot of chaos and criticism. To reach Manthali, the headquarters of Ramechhap district where the airport is located, tourists have to take a six-seven hour bus ride from Kathmandu. And since flights to Lukla only fly in the morning, when the weather is clear, tourists have to spend a night in Manthali. But this small town only has a few hotels, that too with the most basic facilities. This problem made news in late October when bad weather caused tourists to be stranded in Manthali with no proper accommodation facilities.
In light of how things currently are, people’s confusion is warranted. Everest is one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions and the reason thousands of tourists come to Nepal every year. If they return to their home countries with bad experiences over poor management, the country risks them never coming back.
But with autumn coming to an end, and spring still months away, the tourist flow to the Everest region will reduce significantly. Now is the time for the government to jump into action to develop Manthali as a tourist destination because this decision could have a deeper, long-term positive impact — for Manthali, its people, and the environment.
Controlling air traffic
“Every day, more than 500 tourists fly to Lukla during the peak season. On our busiest days, we operate around 30 flights a day, and that is just our airlines. There are two other airlines that operate flights to Lukla,” said Yuvraj Bista, Chief Business Officer of Yeti Airlines, which is also the sister company for Tara Air which flies to Lukla.
Besides Tara Air, other private airline companies that fly to the region are Summit Air and Sita Air. Clubbing together all the flights by these three airlines, a total of almost 90 flights a day go to Lukla. Even more also fly to the region on helicopters.
“The issue with the flights to Lukla is that they have to be flown early in the morning when the weather in Kathmandu is clear. And fitting in 80-90 flights every morning is a big issue because they hold up international flights as well,” Bista added.
Better for air pollution
Now, with the flights directed to Manthali, air traffic pressure has reduced significantly at the Tribhuvan international airport. But this decision does not only reduce air traffic, it also helps reduce air pollution, and not just for Kathmandu valley.
It is no secret that air travel is not good for the environment. Emissions from airplanes are a significant contributor to climate change, with commercial flying accounting for about 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions. Airplanes burning fossil fuels not only release carbon dioxide but also have strong warming non-carbon dioxide effects due to nitrogen oxide, vapor trails, and cloud formation triggered by the altitudes at which aircrafts operate.
By redirecting flights to Manthali, flights to Lukla now only take 15-20 minutes instead of the 40-45 minutes it took from Kathmandu. This means planes will be emitting half the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere if they fly from Manthali. Of course, tourists have to take a six-to-seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Manthali which also burns fossil fuels but in comparison, cars and buses burn a lot less carbon than airplanes. According to a European Environment Agency report, 55g of CO2 is emitted per passenger every kilometer for an average car, 68g for a bus, and a whopping 285g per passenger for a plane.
Since flights have started in Manthali, things are slowly changing there as well. With more tourists coming in, new hotels and restaurants are coming up and old ones are being upgraded. Manthali, which never really saw foreign tourists, just domestic ones, is slowly changing.
A growing Manthali
“Manthali is definitely becoming a bit more tourist-friendly. Earlier, before flights to Lukla were directed here, we only saw local tourists stopping over for a break or for a night while on their way to other destinations like Kalinchowk or Dolakha or Jiri,” said Ashish Sharma, manager of Freedom Resort, a newly established resort in Manthali, close to the airport. The resort is one of the first ones in the area built earlier this year.
During peak season, the hotel is seeing full occupancy, with at least 50-60 guests arriving every day. “Even now, although the season is almost coming to an end, we have 35-40 people,” said Sharma.
More tourists mean more money and more opportunities for locals like Sharma. But if the government is serious about this decision for the long-term then it has to make better plans to keep tourists happy.
“For the long-term, this is an excellent alternative but the government has to do its part in improving Manthali and promoting the place as a tourist area. It has been two years since the government first announced it would redirect flights but it hasn’t done anything to develop Manthali as a destination for travelers yet. The private sector alone cannot do that,” said Raj Gyawali, a tourism entrepreneur who has spent almost two decades in the industry.
“It cannot abruptly announce such decisions without first building the infrastructure and the roads. When such decisions are made, consumers should be the central point,” said Gyawali.