Nepal Tourism Caught in Chinese Scam: Pokhara International Airport
Situated in the northwestern Nepal, Pokhara is a leading tourism hub with population just second to the country’s capital – Kathmandu. Pokhara is only 200 kilo meters (120 miles) west of Kathmandu, the city is home to beautiful lakes – such as Phewa – and is also called the “City of Lakes”.
Pokhara, located at an elevation of around 822 meters on the shores of Phewa Lake, boasts proximity to the magnificent Annapurna Range. This range includes three of the world’s top ten highest peaks: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna I, and Manaslu, lying within 15–35 miles of the city.
Recognized as Nepal’s tourism capital, Pokhara serves as a launching pad for trekkers embarking on the Annapurna Circuit in the breathtaking Annapurna Conservation Area region of the Himalayas.
Pokhara At Dawn | Prasan Shrestha via Wiki
Tribhuwan International Airport (TIA) serves as the main airport of Nepal. For a long time until the construction of another airport in Pokhara, TIA was the only functioning international airport of Nepal.
The Pokhara Regional International Airport (PRIA) has reported an average of 4,000 passengers every day during the recent festival season.
More foreign visitors during festive holidays and domestic tourist seasons have caused a notable rise in passenger traffic on the Pokhara-Kathmandu-Pokhara air route.
The airport, however, aims to serve 1 million passengers annually.
Pokhara’s Decades-Old Dream for an International Airport & Chinese Debt Trap
Nepal aimed to build an international airport in Pokhara since the late 1970s, envisioning it as a key tourism hub. Progress stalled due to political and financial hurdles until China stepped in to assist.
The airport’s construction aligns with China’s goal to establish its influence outside of American dominance. Nepal’s proximity to India, a rising regional power, adds strategic value for China. The completed airport is now promoted by Beijing as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The investment policy is also known for costly and sometimes subpar constructions that burden borrowing nations with debt.
In Nepal, China’s CAMC Engineering led the airport project, importing materials and machinery from China, integrating Chinese technology and design. However, a New York Times investigation uncovered the company’s focus on its profits, sidelining Nepali oversight.
As a result, Nepal, now, faces an expensive airport without sufficient traffic to repay its loans to the Chinese lender.
Pokhara International Airport: Construction & Concerns
PRIA Under Construction | Photo: The Himalayan Times
In 2011, Nepal’s finance minister supported CAMC’s proposal before competitive bidding, ahead of China’s commitment to finance the airport. The Chinese loan agreement allowed only Chinese companies to compete. CAMC initially bid $305 million, twice the estimate, causing controversy.
Eventually, after scrutiny, the cost was reduced to $216 million, a 30% decrease. In 2016, a 20-year agreement was signed, with a quarter as an interest-free loan and the rest borrowed from China’s Exim Bank at 2% interest, repayments starting in 2026. Construction began a year later.
In 2018, Murari Gautam, overseeing the Chinese contractor, raised concerns.
Initially budgeted at $2.8 million for consultants to ensure international construction standards, the funds were later reduced to $10,000, redirected elsewhere.
Gautam highlighted concerns about CAMC’s work, citing insufficient soil testing for the runway, poorly designed drainage, and a lack of documentation on the quality of Chinese materials.
From the early construction itself, CAMC hadn’t been focused on delivering a quality airport; instead, it was just completing the project.