On Wednesday, October 20th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate India’s 29th international airport at Kushinagar, 30 miles (ca. 48 km) east of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Spread over an area of 590 acres, the airport will have one 3.2 kilometres long and 45 meters wide runway. The airport was built in collaboration between the state government and the Airports Authority of India at an estimated cost of 260 crore rupees. B737-900 aircraft will ply from the airport and improve connectivity with mainly South East Asia.
The choice of Kushinagar, after Varanasi and Lucknow, as the site for Uttar Pradesh’s 3rd international airport, was far from arbitrary. Kushinagar is an important Buddhist site and is supposed to be the place where Gautam Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana after his death. The inauguration will be attended by ambassadors from more than 10 countries and 100 Buddhist priests and High Priests from Sri Lanka. After the inauguration, Prime Minister Modi will visit the Parinirvana Stupa.
One of the major goals behind developing the Kushinagar International Airport is to boost tourism in India. Owing to its history as the birthplace of Buddhism, India used to be the destination of more than 6 lakh Buddhist pilgrims and tourists every year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
This religious tourism is based mainly on what is called the Buddhist circuit: the sites of Kushinagar, Lumbini, Sarnath and Gaya. Each of these places is associated with the birth of Buddhism, the Buddha was born in Lumbini, he attained enlightenment in Gaya, Sarnath was where he gave his first sermon and in Kushinagar he attained Mahanirvana. An international airport at Kushinagar connects the heart of this circuit to countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and others from which Buddhist tourists visit India.
The Indian government also plans to connect Kushinagar to the other Buddhist sites via special trains. India is aiming to develop these cities as principal pilgrimage sites, and India as the principal travel destination for Buddhists around the world.
The resulting boost to tourism from the airport is expected to translate into the economic development of the region. Local businesses like hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies are expected to benefit and create new opportunities for the local people. Local produce, from the 15-20 square kilometre hinterland surrounding Kushinagar will see better export opportunities; and proximity to the India-Nepal border means that the airport will have strategic significance.
The connection with Sri Lanka:
Earlier this month, when India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Sri Lanka, improving connectivity and increasing tourist exchanges between the two neighbours was one of the key points discussed. Buddhism, which is now the major religion in the country, was brought to Sri Lanka by the children of Ashoka, one of ancient India’s greatest kings.
As such India and Sri Lanka have had a cultural connection through the ages, and it is this connection that India, in the face of growing Chinese influence on the island nation, is trying to strengthen through religious diplomacy.
In January this year, India sent 5 lakh doses of Covishield to Sri Lanka for vaccinating the population against Covid-19. On October 20th, the inaugural flight landing at Kushinagar international airport will be from the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.
It will be carrying, apart from more than 100 dignitaries and Buddhist monks, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksha and President Gotabaya Rajapaksha’s nephew Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksha. They will take part in the inauguration ceremony with PM Modi. The establishment of the airport at Kushinagar will not only be an important step towards boosting tourism in India but will deepen historic ties between the two nations.