As Air India and SpiceJet make a comeback to Aurangabad, linking Udaipur to the city, there is palpable excitement among tourism stakeholders who believe that the move would bring in a sizable influx of international tourists. We spoke to Sunit Kothari, Director, Kothari Group, who played a key role in roping in air carriers, to understand the impact of the development and what it means for the business of tourism in the city of Aurangabad.

Sunit Kothari
Director, Kothari Group

The perils of the lack of air-connectivity

Aurangabad is back in business and the coming winters could spell a new beginning for its tourism constituents. Air India will be operating on the Grand Old Circuit (Mumbai-Aurangabad-Udaipur-Aurangabad-Mumbai) one more time. For the uninitiated, Air India operated IC 491 and IC 492 on the route for nearly three decades, before the national carrier ceased operations, beginning the winter season of 1998. The cascading effect of the decision was much too visible, as foreign tourist numbers coming in from Udaipur, and Rajasthan, steadily dwindled. “Even today, Rajasthan commands one of the highest numbers of international tourists into India. So, the development did hit us hard,” Mr Kothari explained. More misfortune followed as the city “somehow vanished from inbound tourism brochures of tour operators and travel agents, domestic and international, further exacerbating the situation.” “All was not lost but we did lose out on a lot of circuit movement,” he shared. After Jet Airways shut down its morning and evening flights connecting Aurangabad, there was a further dip in arrivals. The city currently serviced only one flight by Air India.

The resurrection

Hectic lobbying and intense discussions with aviation players did the tide turn for good. The pace had picked up in the past three months, we were informed, as multiple rounds of meetings were held between tourism industry stakeholders and airline operators. “We met all airline operators – IndiGo, Air India and SpiceJet. We provided them with a lot of technical data, airport statistics, and the rest. Somehow, we managed to convince SpiceJet and Air India,” he shared. Tourism was bound to grow leaps and bounds when all flights were going to be operationalised, he insisted.

Commending Mr Ashwani Lohani, CMD, Air India, and Ms Meenakshi Mallik, Commercial Director, Air India, for “graciously accommodating industry’s concerns,” he shared that Air India was going to commence operations beginning 16 October in the coming month. The three times a week flight was going to cover Mumbai-Aurangabad-Udaipur, returning on the same day.

Important to note that SpiceJet, too, was slated to commence operations beginning 8 October, linking Delhi to Aurangabad with a daily flight. “We now need flights in the Mumbai-Aurangabad-Mumbai sector,” he reflected, sharing his thoughts on the road ahead. Udaipur-Aurangabad flights was going to be seasonal, plying from October to March. The rest of the flights, expected to start soon, would offer year-round service.

Aurangabad’s brush with international tourism is not new

Aurangabad has had a long history of catering to the international inbound, since the 1960s – from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. “We get international groups even now, thanks to Ajanta and Ellora which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and other heritage structures and attractions that are dotted across the city’s landscape. Therefore, tourists from numerous Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and others, come in. We also get a lot of tourists from European countries and the USA. The city has been on the world tourist map for a very long time,” Mr Kothari detailed.  

While much of the footfalls had been driven by the leisure segment, a sprawling industrial base with several manufacturing units, has been steadily adding corporate footfalls too. The city boasted of 4 industrial belts and DMIC (Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor) had a visible incremental effect on investments in industrial activities. All of it was positively impacting tourism. “There is a steady mix now,” he said. He, however, added that MICE numbers were only incremental as the city was bereft of large banqueting facilities, able to hold events of substantial nature. “None of the hotels here have the banqueting space to hold an event of 2000-3000 people. Yes, there are small conferences but very high corporate movement,” he said. 

Apart from the national carrier and SpiceJet, TruJet, a charter flight operator, was also commencing flights between Aurangabad and Ahmedabad and was expected to bring in a lot of traffic from Gujarat’s shores, especially during winters, Diwali, and Navratri holidays, he shared. Mr Kothari claimed that connectivity was the key to growing the footfall count.

Spiritual and Buddhist tourism: A pivot to growth

Given the city’s tryst with Buddhist heritage and rich spiritual legacy, Buddhist monks visited the city in very high numbers, especially from the Fareast countries, we were told. Making a special mention of inbound from Japan, he said that apart from the evident Buddhist connection, the Japanese government had pumped in large sums in the past 25 years into the city. “Case in point, the Ajanta-Ellora phase-1 and phase-2 development program. The entire visitor management system, laying of the optical fibre systems, cave restoration etc. have been supported by the Japanese funding,” he said.

Intra-state tourism and the need for Mumbai-Aurangabad flight 

The intra-state tourist numbers had been decent as well. Mumbai and Pune contributed the most, he shared. The numbers swelled up on long and extended weekends, and extended holidays, he added. Limited air connectivity – there was only one flight between the two cities – and exorbitant airfares deterred large movement, pushing tourists to opt for other destinations. While good train connectivity somewhat compensated for the air connectivity pangs, he expressed optimism on further growth in numbers from within the state as the air connectivity infrastructure grew with time. “Airfares tend to become more reasonable as more aircraft operate on a particular route. We are hopeful that it will happen for Aurangabad too,” he said.

The coming winter was going to be a very exciting time for the city of Aurangabad. Tourism had a multiplier effect on the economy, therefore the entire ecosystem stood to gain from the development, and not just hotels, he insisted. “Tour guides, taxi operators, handicraft sellers, folk artists – people associated directly and indirectly with the tourism industry stand to gain from this, which bodes well for the economy of the city and the state,” he elaborated.

With a visible positive change in sight, tourism industry stakeholders had now also been lobbying with the ministry of railways to kickstart high-speed rail network with Aurangabad as the terminating station. While many trains operated on the route, none of them culminated at Aurangabad, and shorter halt time and limited quota of seat availability curtailed large-scale movement. Mr Kothari noted that a direct train was going to promote rail traffic numbers, encouraging more group tours and MICE movement. “We have requested the railway minister to provide us with a direct high-speed rail like the Tejas Express between Mumbai and Aurangabad,” he informed.

While there was much to rejoice for tourism industry stakeholders in the city as the long-pending demand for air-connectivity was finally being addressed, Mr Kothari, however, stressed that advancing infrastructure and connectivity was an ongoing process. The industry needed to refrain from basking in the glory, and consistently up the ante for more to ensure that the crown jewel of Maharashtra was rightfully placed as the number one destination in the region, he exclaimed.