Lakshadweep, the archipelago nestled in the Arabian Sea, saw a significant decline in aircraft movement throughout 2023, marking the lowest figures since 2015, as per official data from the Airports Authority of India (AAI). This unexpected trend unfolded despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit, which aimed to rekindle interest.
The Agatti island airport, a crucial gateway to Lakshadweep, experienced the lowest number of flights from April to November 2023, marking an eight-year low with only 1,080 aircraft movements. This sharp drop is noteworthy when compared to the corresponding periods in 2022 (1,482 movements) and 2021 (1,202 movements). The only exception to this trend was the pandemic-hit year of 2020 when global travel was severely disrupted.
Aircraft movements, representing both take-offs and landings, are pivotal indicators of transportation activity. The dwindling numbers prompt inquiries into the region’s appeal as a travel destination and raise concerns about its tourism industry.
The archipelago gained attention recently due to a diplomatic row triggered by intemperate remarks from junior ministers of the Maldives regarding Prime Minister Modi’s January 2 visit, intensifying the controversy with shared social media photos. Despite this, Indian celebrities announcing plans for Lakshadweep vacations generated renewed interest in the destination.
Industry executives, however, highlight critical impediments hindering tourism growth. The lack of direct connectivity and insufficient hotels and tourist amenities emerge as significant deterrents for potential visitors. VP Narula, owner of Apex Travel and Tours, underscores the importance of direct air connectivity for both cost savings and convenience, pointing out that Indians now have more direct options to various beach destinations in the country.
Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India, emphasizes the cumbersome nature of limited access due to flight restrictions and mandatory permits, attributing these factors to the restricted tourism in Lakshadweep. Mayal also notes the insufficient promotion of the archipelago, resulting in a lack of awareness among potential tourists.
Presently, only Alliance Air operates a daily flight to Agatti, which boasts an airstrip capable of handling only small aircraft. Agatti stands as the sole airport in the 36-island archipelago, 10 of which are inhabited. Recognizing the challenges, the government plans to develop a new airport at Minicoy Island, aiming to boost tourism and enhance the surveillance capabilities of the defence forces.
Despite these initiatives, Jay Bhatia, vice-president of the association, highlights the existing infrastructure’s inadequacy to handle a surge in tourist numbers. Limited transport options, primarily flights and ferries from Kochi, remain the primary modes of travel for both locals and the few visitors exploring these relatively unexplored islands.
An anonymous airline official echoed these concerns, emphasizing that without substantial traffic, airlines may hesitate to operate in the region. As the government contemplates development plans, the future of Lakshadweep’s tourism industry remains uncertain, with challenges to overcome and potential opportunities on the horizon.