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Kannur: For Anuraj, a technology professional working in Bengaluru, it’s an eight-hour drive to reach Parassinikkadavu, his northern Kerala hometown located in Kannur district. Anuraj, who uses only one name, is relatively lucky—his friends from Kannur working in Hyderabad must travel 1,400km either by road or rail to visit their homes. Alternatively, they can fly to […]
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Kannur: For Anuraj, a technology professional working in Bengaluru, it’s an eight-hour drive to reach Parassinikkadavu, his northern Kerala hometown located in Kannur district.

Anuraj, who uses only one name, is relatively lucky—his friends from Kannur working in Hyderabad must travel 1,400km either by road or rail to visit their homes. Alternatively, they can fly to Mangaluru in Karanatka or Kozhikode in Kerala (south of Kannur) and then complete the last 100km and 140km, respectively by road. For them and thousands of others, visiting their home in North Kerala promises to be an easier affair starting Sunday.

The reason: A new international airport that opened in Kannur this weekend. Overnight, this tier II city finds itself on the global aviation map, becoming the fourth airport in the state after Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. The new airport aids growth of budget air travel and provides unprecedented connectivity for residents, returning migrants and tourists, transforming their experience of travelling to the picturesque northern tip of Kerala known as Malabar.

But the big question is whether this emerging narrative of connectivity in contemporary India, which entails taking transport to people rather than the other way round, will become an economic force multiplier. Budget travel in India has acquired a new dimension with the launch of Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN), an ambitious plan to make air travel accessible and affordable to mofussil India.

Malabar connect

North Kerala, it may be remembered, received even rail connectivity only somewhat recently—when the Konkan rail line linked Mumbai, Goa and Mangaluru in 1998 along India’s western coast. The region is still economically backward compared to the southern part of the state. Prior to this, locals or visitors had to take a circuitous rail route to reach Malabar, discouraging tourism.

Not surprisingly, the region has suffered the consequences. According to the Kerala State Planning Board, Kannur district’s economic output was  30,000 crore in FY16. In contrast, the output for Kochi was  54,000 crore and that of Thiruvananthapuram was  43,000 crore in the same year.

The new airport, which is expected to rewrite the region’s economic history, is equipped with a 3,050m runway, enough to accommodate any large aircraft operating medium-haul flights with a full load of passengers and cargo. Its footprint would extend from direct flights to the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah and Singapore, a popular destination for outbound Malayali migrants in South-East Asia. Work is already underway to extend the runway to 4,000m, which would bring it on a par with Delhi, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, says V. Thulasidas, managing director of Kannur International Airport Ltd (Kial), the public-private partnership that executed the project.

Traditionally, Malabar has lost out in the tourist rush to God’s Own Country. Part of the reason was lack of easy connectivity. This, despite its cultural legacy of folk and martial art forms, beautiful beaches and the amalgamation of the colonial legacy of the Dutch, Portuguese and British manifesting in its forts and churches. Last year, over 5,100 foreign and close to 700,000 domestic tourists visited the district. In comparison, Thiruvananthapuram received over 420,700 foreign tourists and 2.5 million domestic tourists. Kochi received over 453,900 foreign tourists and about 3.2 million domestic tourists in the same year.

While the airport construction was underway, locals had been making stealth trips to the airport; as a result, pictures of the facilities have been circulating for a while on social media. When it was opened for public visit for a week from 5 October, the response was overwhelming—close to 150,000 people visited that weekend alone.

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