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Airlines scramble for slice of business

October 20, 2004 10:12 IST

Tourist traffic to the country, which was reduced to a trickle after the twin blows of 9/11 and the India-Pakistan military standoff, is on the rise again.

The tourism ministry estimates India will have over 2 million visitors between now and March next year, a jump of 30 per cent over the same period last year.

Anticipating a spurt in travel, international airlines, which suffered a hard landing because of the recession in the tourist trade, are now ramping up capacity.

Consider the figures: airlines plan to add over 2,000 flights to India over the next five months. At least 25 per cent additional capacity will be created during the season on key international routes.

Even outbound travel is expected to grow by about 25 per cent during the coming peak season. According to estimates, this year about 5.5 million tourists are expected to travel out of India against last year's 4 million.

Of the 5.5 million travellers this year, about 3 million are expected during the peak season. Last year's peak season saw about 2.25 million tourists travelling out of India.

Flights are nearly full even after capacity addition by various carriers in the last few years. The travel trade points out airfares in the India sector may go up slightly, although airlines are yet to take a firm decision on this.

Thanks to the government's limited open sky policy, which allows the carriers to add any number of flights outside the purview of the air services agreements, every major airline has filed an application with the civil aviation ministry to add more flights to India in the coming months.

Take a look at the plans of some carriers. The Dubai-based Emirates has sought permission to add 600 flights to India during the five months that the open sky party lasts. Sri Lankan Airlines will add 11 weekly flights from October 3, taking the total number of flights to India to 77.

Lufthansa, with the addition of Hyderabad and the extra flight to Bangalore, will operate 34 flights a week between India and Germany, up from 29 now.

Says the airline's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Wolfgang Mayrhuber, "We already offer more flights between Europe and India than any other European airline, and we aim to build further on our leadership position in the years ahead by participating in the tremendous growth potential that India offers."

Similarly, Air France will increase its capacity to India by about 72 per cent. It will achieve this by increasing the number of flights and deploying bigger aircraft. This will take the number of seats on the India-France route to 5,600 from the present 3,250.

The rush has, of course, resulted in more business for travel agents. "We have near capacity booking this season. This is even after new airlines like Etihad starting services to India and some airlines pressing high-capacity aircraft into service," said Balbir Mayal, president, Travel Agents' Association of India.

Though the going seems great, it is time to take a reality check. Compared with the numbers in China --- where the tourist traffic is estimated at a cool 30 million --- India is lagging by far.

Tourism Minister Renuka Chowdhury acknowledges the sector's problems. "The biggest problem we have is the infrastructure to handle this traffic. Our airports need to be better equipped to handle it. We need more parking space for aircraft. Moreover, we need to have more hotels across various categories."
Bipin Chandran in New Delhi