Charles Shobhraj once claimed that he could pass an elephant through Nepal’s customs, and that is still true at Kathmandu airport, where inadequate facilities are compounded by what insiders say are wide-open loopholes for big-time smugglers while innocent passengers are hassled.
After outrage from passengers, Tribhuvan Airport is getting a facelift, but most of it superficial. As a $100 million upgrade lies in limbo, Nepal’s only international air gateway gives a poor impression to passengers.
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Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari says not everything at the airport is under his ministry, and it is difficult to coordinate between the 171 government, security and private entities there. His effort to turn TIA into a ‘boutique airport’ is being ridiculed as it takes hours to get through visa lines, customs x-ray bottleneck, and luggage carousel. Then passengers are forced to negotiate an obstacle course to a new parking lot 200m down without trolleys, and a tourist broke his leg last month after slipping in the dark.
Chief of airport customs Gajendra Kumar Thakur passes the buck to the ministry: “We have only half the staff we need, and that means we are overwhelmed when many planes land together.”
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One afternoon last week, angry passengers muttered profanities as they waited for 45 minutes to be checked if they were ‘metal free’ at the arrival x-ray (photo, above) supposed to detect passengers bringing in more than the allowable 1 litre of liquor, or 50g of gold ornaments. Two passengers are apprehended every week, but the x-rays do not seem to have deterred smugglers who pass gold by the kilogram.
The airport’s reputation as a den of smugglers was spotlighted anew after the scandal involving 33kg of seized gold that went missing last year. A Parliamentary committee recommended plugging loopholes, but the passenger bottleneck remains, inconveniencing passengers ahead of Visit Nepal Year 2020 by when the country hopes to bring in 2 million tourists.
“We found that the biggest problem lay in the customs mechanism,” Janakraj Joshi of the parliamentary sub-committee revealed. The report was presented to Parliament’s Good Governance and Monitoring Committee last year, but Joshi says nothing happened.
Airport officials promise the arrival concourse will have two more conveyor belts by May. Spokesman Pratap Babu Tiwari says the runway and apron expansion will resume soon, the terminal will have free WiFi and “soothing music.”
After waiting hours at immigration and customs, the last thing passengers want to hear is blaring muzak.
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