Tourism is set to boom this winter in the Taj city, with the union defence and civil aviation ministries green-signalling the landing of direct international flights at the local Kheria airport, an important base of the Indian Air Force.
File photo of the Taj Mahal in Agra (PIC/AFP)
For decades, the tourism bodies of Agra had been alleging that the strong Delhi lobbies of hoteliers and travel agents were sabotaging moves for upgradation of the Agra airport and obstructing landing of international flights.
But for the past one year, under pressure from local tourism bodies, Congress politicians, local MPs and MLAs and citizens' groups - "there were a series of interactions, delegations calling on central ministers, and media support" - there has been a change in perception and a whole lot of "imaginary fears" were removed, say tourism industry leaders of the Taj city.
The last round of meeting with senior defence ministry officials, three days ago, ironed out the remaining differences, particularly one relating to the repair and maintenance of one runway that needs to be used for bigger planes this winter, tourism sources said.
Rajiv Tiwari, a senior industry leader, told IANS: "The defence minister and the secretary-level officials have taken a positive view and now allowed the use of the runway for scheduled chartered flights. We have submitted several alternative proposals for creating amenities and the construction of a safe corridor to the air strip which is used by the air force."
Surprisingly even with all the claimed restrictions and talk of lack of air connectivity in Agra, the local Kheria airport, according to airport director Kuldip Singh, received a record 800-plus charters last year. The number of tourists visiting Agra crossed the five-million mark.
Even the civil aviation ministry, on its part, maintains that the permission was granted in principle due to the presence of technical and industrial prerequisites required for international operations.
"The ministry has taken several technical points and industry views into consideration before granting the permission," a senior Civil Aviation Ministry official told IANS.
According to the official, the addition of night landing facility aided by an instrument landing system (ILS) was one of the biggest support points for allowing direct international service to the airport.
"Though some challenges like terminal and parking facility remain, the major areas like night landing, emergency services have been taken care of by the Airport Authority of India. We hope that upgradation will continue, making it a world-class tourist airport hub," the official added.
While allowing "already scheduled charter flights" to land at the Kheria airport, the defence ministry has rejected the suggestion to postpone construction and maintenance work of the air strip, with the longer one meant to be used by bigger planes. Air force sources said the repairs would be completed by March 31.
The tourism-based business community in Agra further said the move can lead to 10 million-plus visitors coming to the Taj city every year.
"If one added the free entrants to the Taj Mahal, the under-15 and the devouts who offered prayers on Fridays and during the annual Shah Jahan Urs, plus other holidays, the number of visitors could be around 10 million," says Sandip Arora, former president of the Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association.
"If you look at the issue objectively, it really makes no sense for foreign tourists to get off at the Palam airport and then waste at least half a day to reach Agra by road. If a tourist came straight to the Kheria airport which is hardly 10 km from the Taj Mahal, he would save a lot of time and expenses, and perhaps see more monuments other than the Taj Mahal," adds Surendra Sharma, a senior hotelier of Agra.