| Buddhist monks arriving on the first direct flight from Colombo to Gaya deplane with a gold statue of Buddha. (AFP)
Bodhgaya, Nov. 12: As the Sri Lankan Airways Airbus touched down at 2.45 pm with ministers, monks, travel agents and sundry onlookers in attendance, Gaya joined the elite list of international airports in the country.
Only six kilometres away from the leafy Bodhgaya temple complex with a runway longer than that of Patna to accommodate bigger aircraft, the Gaya airport provides the Naxalite-infested district the opportunity to reap the benefits of the Buddhist circuit that draws cash-rich tourists, mainly from East Asia.
As the monks blew their singhars — a trumpet-like musical instrument — and beat drums, a band of dancers tripped down the stairs from the Airbus A 320. A group of nine Sri Lankan Buddhists followed with a gold-plated Buddha idol — a gift from their country to Bodhgaya, where Buddha received enlightenment.
Union minister for civil aviation Shahnawaz Hussain and the Sri Lankan high commissioner, Mansala Moonesinghe, garlanded the idol and welcomed the group. About 110 tourists came by the inaugural flight, which left for Colombo in the evening.
Even as overcast skies threatened the reception, there wasn’t a shade of doubt in the minds of the 40 waiting travel operators about the success of this venture. Their enthusiasm was matched by the tourists.
“It’s been long-awaited facility made available to Sri Lankan tourists like me. It was a very smooth journey,” said Chitra Vikramasinghe, a 45-year-old first-timer to Bodhgaya.
The airlines will run a weekly Colombo-Gaya-Delhi-Colombo flight, essentially targeted at the growing number of Buddhist pilgrims to Bihar — estimated at 50,000 annually. “The majority of religious tourists from Sri Lanka are old or middle-aged. Their journey through land routes, usually via Chennai, used to be tortuous. As their journey is generally sponsored by their children, who are well placed now, they will avail of the direct flight,” said Roshan Wijesekera, finance supervisor of Sri Lankan Airways.
The civil aviation minister held out further hope for the fledgling airport. “The airport will soon be connected with Bangkok and, by the next two years, when we are sure airlines from Singapore and Indonesia would join us, this will be one of the busiest airports, proving some of our critics wrong,” said Hussain, who has pegged this airport a milestone of his ministry.
For those worried about the crime track record of Gaya, Bihar minister for law, Shakil Ahmed Khan, assured: “The state government is committed to back this project with adequate security arrangement.”
An evening of cultural programmes was hosted for the tourists as the administration and the tour operators went out of their way to pamper them, After all, according to a state tourism estimate, one tourist will provide employment to 11 persons. Already a network of hotels has sprung up along the Buddhist circuit, including 40 in Bodhgaya itself.
“We are trying to tap the East Asia market and draft a definite roadmap for the pilgrims, making them stay in Bodhgaya for a week till the next flight arrives,” said C.B. Singh, corporate manager of a New Delhi-based travel agency.
Travel agents are adding places of interest to the circuit, many of them in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Nepal, to keep the tourists engaged. In this age of competition, Rajiv Chopra, a travel agent, spelt out the formula for success. “The tourists’ Buddhist circuit should be impressive.”