Malabar now beckons, via Kannur airport


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.

The right signals

For chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who is from Kannur and leads the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, the airport is key to sending the right signals to court foreign funds and resources the state so desperately seeks to bridge the glaring infrastructure deficit. Vijayan told Mint that the new airport would bring more tourists to Kannur, Kasaragod and Wayanad in northern Kerala, and Kodagu or Coorg in Karnataka. It would also help in attracting investments to the region, he said.

“Besides benefiting the numerous families here with non-resident workers, Kannur airport has also increased the possibility of air travel becoming a preferred mode for travel within the state,” Vijayan said in response to an emailed query from Mint. Now, it takes over 11 hours to travel from Kannur to state capital Thiruvananthapuram, covering 470km by road. Many people, therefore, make an overnight train journey.

According to Vijayan, some international airlines have shown interest in flying to Kannur. As of now, Air India Express, which launched the inaugural service to Abu Dhabi, and GoAir have commenced operations. SpiceJet and IndiGo are expected to start operations shortly.

“Demand drives growth in aviation market and when market grows, more demand is created,” Thulasidas, who was chairman and managing director of Air India for over four years from 2003, said in an interview.

“We could not so far fully exploit the tourism and industrial development potential in Kannur and Kasaragod region because of infrastructure constraints,” the chief minister said. “The airport addresses these to some extent.”

This is the second significant connectivity project in the state— which is still recovering from the aftermath of a devastating flood—after the Kochi metro in June 2017.

“An airport is like a magnet that attracts people, businesses and economic activity,” said Thulasidas. Export of spices, high-value handlooms and perishables such as flowers, vegetables and marine products from the region are expected to get a boost with the increased connectivity.

A force multiplier?

Thulasidas claims a greenfield project of this nature could have a potentially transformative impact in the region. “This is an airport for two states—Kerala and Karnataka,” he says.

According to him, a key reason for the growth of the information technology (IT) industry in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode was the connectivity provided by international airports in these cities, implying something similar could pan out in Kannur.

The state administration is now working on a plan to develop roads for quick access to the airport from six directions, including from Thalassery, Wayanad and Mahé—all prominent towns in Malabar.

In addition, both Kial and the state government are planning mega projects in and around the airport, offering new jobs and creating investment opportunities for private players. In anticipation, real estate prices in the region have soared.

“In 2005, a cent of land (one hundredth of an acre) in Kannur used to cost about ₹35,000. Now, it will fetch about ₹5 lakh,” says Anuraj.

“As far as employment is concerned, we expect that in the initial years, around 2,000 people will be directly employed by all the agencies, which is bound to go up as operations expand,” says Thulasidas.

Two ground handling firms, two housekeeping companies, one cargo handling entity, private security firms and businesses coming up in the airport such as duty-free and other retail outlets, hotels and convention centres are among the potential employers.

Kial has initiated plans to set up an airport township for all the people employed at the airport, which will have facilities for shopping, education, entertainment, healthcare and sports, he says. Similarly, the state government is planning a big industrial park of 4,000-5,000 acres around the airport for businesses such as IT parks, multi-speciality hospitals and a knowledge city for higher education.

Ramachandran Kadannappally, who represents the Kannur constituency and is the state minister for ports, told Mint in an interview that the airport had the most modern facilities and would help develop not just the district but also the entire state.

Lure of air travel

Kerala, with four international airports, articulates the explosive growth in air travel in Asia’s third-largest economy that has made this mode of transport more affordable for the common man. India is projected to overtake the UK to become the third-largest air passenger market by 2025, by which time China would have reached the top spot overtaking the US, according to International Air Transport Association (Iata).

India wants to expand capacity four-five times to handle a billion passenger trips a year over the next decade and a half. This would need up to ₹4 trillion in investments. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) will spend ₹20,000 crore in the next four years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet last month decided to privatize six airports in Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram and Mangaluru.

“Building facilities like airports have a strong multiplier effect in economic development. The notion that air travel is a luxury has changed. It is widely seen as a necessity now,” said Dhiraj Mathur, leader of defence and aerospace practice at PwC India.

However, this is easier said than done, given that many projects in the previous cycle of investments have faltered. India started focusing on investing in airports, highways and other infrastructure projects in a big way in 2000 during the Vajpayee government’s term, a trend which had been maintained by every successive government, said Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India. The downside of this investment boom is the huge bad debt problem that has crippled banks’ ability to finance new projects.

Sen said a key development challenge was to revive private investments in infrastructure projects as the state could not do it all by itself. “Better project design, more realistic assessment of risks and robust revenue models are essential for projects to succeed,” he said.

Meanwhile, locals continue to root for the Kannur airport, but in their typical sardonic humour. “The only new public asset to have come up in Kannur town in the last decade is a bus stop,” says a retired government official on condition of anonymity.