Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday inaugurated the Kushinagar international airport, which is an endeavour to connect Buddhist pilgrimage sites around the world as well as facilitate the travel of pilgrims to the final resting place of Lord Buddha.
"In order to develop the places associated with Lord Buddha, for better connectivity, special attention is being given by India today on the creation of facilities for the devotees. The development of Kushinagar is in the priorities of the UP government and the central government," said the prime minister.
He said that the development project was of special importance to him and its completion earned him personal satisfaction.
"Kushinagar International Airport is the result of decades of hopes and expectations. My happiness is two-fold today. As curious about the spiritual journey, I have a sense of satisfaction. As a representative of the Purvanchal area, it is time for the fulfilment of a commitment," Modi said.
Highlighting the importance of the Kushinagar airport, Modi said, "India is the centre and birthplace of the faith of Buddhist people around the world. Today this facility of Kushinagar International Airport is a gift to the followers of this faith. This region was witness to the entire journey of Lord Buddha, from his enlightenment to his Mahaparinirvana. Now we have made sure that it is directly connected to the world today."
The prime minister also pointed out the utility and importance of the developmental project to the people of the state, ahead of crucial Assembly elections due next year.
"In UP alone, including this airport, nine new airports and terminals have been made available to people. Jewar Airport, which will be India's largest airport, is also being worked on at a record pace," said Modi.
He said that the new airport will not only facilitate religious tourism but also enrich an entire ecosystem of trade in the Uttar Pradesh town.
"Kushinagar International Airport won't just be a mode of air connectivity. Be it farmers, animal keepers, shopkeepers, workers, local industrialists-it'll benefit all. It'll create an ecosystem of business. Tourism will get maximum benefit, it'll generate employment for youth here," Modi said.
Spread over an area of 590 acres, the international airport boasts world-class facilities. The eight-storied state-of-the-art Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower built at the cost of Rs 17.5 crore, has become fully operational at the airport whereas the navigation system for safe landing and take-off of flights at the airport has also passed the trial successfully.
Why is the project important?
Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh is the final resting place of Gautama Buddha where he attained Mahaparinirvana after his death and is among the most important pilgrim spots for Buddhists.
The airport has been built at an estimated cost of Rs 260 crore and the new terminal building is spread across 3,600 square metres. It has been developed by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) in association with the Uttar Pradesh government.
The airport will help in attracting more followers of Buddhism from home and abroad to Kushinagar and will enhance the development of a Buddhist theme-based circuit
"Journey of Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Shravasti, Rajgir, Sankisa and Vaishali of Buddhist circuit will be covered in lesser time," the civil aviation ministry said in a release on Monday.
Speaking about the capacity of the newly-built air terminal, Prime Minister Modi said, "The effort will be to have a network of more than 200 airports, heliports and water dome in the nation in the next 3-4 years."
The new terminal can handle 300 passengers during peak hours.
What it means for India
The Ministry of Tourism, in the recent past, has been aggressively promoting Buddhist tourism across the nation.
To achieve this aim, the ministry flagged off the Buddhist Circuit Train FAM Tour in early October. The ministry in association with the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) organised the Buddhist Circuit Train FAM Tour as part of the Union government's "Dekho Apna Desh" initiative.
The Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train covers the destinations of Gaya-Bodhgaya, Rajgir-Nalanda in Bihar as well as Sarnath-Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
According to the available figures, Kushinagar received 8.98 lakh, 9.3 lakh, 9.7 lakh, and 10.96 lakh tourists in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively, which dropped to 3.23 lakh tourists in 2020 due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. Similarly, Shravasti received 2.2 lakh, 2.58 lakh, 11.32 lakh, and 12.71 lakh in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively, which dipped to a mere 0.17 lakh in 2020. These figures are expected to rise after the airport becomes fully functional.
This will also boost the opportunities for the export of horticultural products like bananas, strawberries and mushrooms. Tourism inflow is expected to rise by up to 20 percent with the inauguration of the flight.
Sri Lanka, Thailand appreciate gesture
The inauguration of the Kushinagar International Airport was marked by the landing of the inaugural flight at the airport from Colombo, Sri Lanka, carrying the Sri Lankan delegation.
The event was attended by eminent Monks from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, Nepal, Bhutan and Cambodia, as well as Ambassadors of various countries where the Buddhism sect is followed by a prominent section of the population.
Speaking on the sidelines of the event, Sri Lankan Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa said, "One of the greatest gifts Srilanka got from India is Buddhism. Hinduism and Buddhism have co-existed. This deep-rooted relationship will further strengthen"
"It (Kushinagar International Airport) is a great gesture of PM Modi and especially inviting Srilankan airlines to be the first international carrier to land at Kushinagar International Airport," he said.
Ambassador of Thailand to India Pattarat Hongtong, who was also present on the occasion said, "People in Thailand normally like to come to India to complete the Buddhist circuit. The Kushinagar International Airport will boost the tourism between Thailand and India."
Ung Sean, Ambassador of Cambodia said, "I'm here in Kushinagar for the first time. We have a lot of similarities in terms of religion and culture. In Cambodia, Buddism is the religion of our State. 85-89 percent of Cambodian people practice Buddhism. So I'm very glad to be here today."
Laos Ambassador, Bounneme Chouanghom said, "Before COVID, many Lao Buddhist followers came to visit Buddhist shrines. About 85 percent of Lao people are Buddhist so they wished to come to visit where Lord Buddha entered into parinirvana. Now more people will come from Laos to visit Kushinagar"
What are the main connecting points?
Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has announced that budget air carrier SpiceJet will start a New Delhi-Kushinagar flight from 26 November, which could also act as the connecting point for other domestic airports within the country. This will help local passengers and devotees to reach the city.
Apart from this, the airport is expected to have direct aviation connectivity with South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore etc.
The airport will serve a population of more than two crores since the airport has a hinterland of around10-15 Districts and will be a great support for the large migrant population of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and western / northern part of Bihar.