While devotees to Sabarimala can expect hour-long crawl along the roads that lead to the hill shrine, the more elite among them may soon have access to its base camp at Nilackal in rides lasting just about half-an-hour from Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram.
Eyeing to tap the market for air traffic to Sabarimala, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) has invited Expression of Interest (EoI) from chopper operators to facilitate the pilgrimage. The plan envisages leasing out the helipad owned by the board at Nilackal for three years to the highest bidder who will have to run regular services in strict compliance with all rules and regulations laid down by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
The move, according to officials, is part of a plan by the board to leverage the idle property in its possession and generate sustainable income. As of now, the board charges ₹20,000 for each landing on its helipad.
Confirming the move, TDB president K. Ananthagopan said the chopper service would give the devotees more choice to travel and make the transport network to the pilgrimage zone more resilient. If things go as planned, the service would begin during the ongoing pilgrimage season itself, he said.
“The demand for chopper services to Nilackal will only increase as more and more high-profile personalities are now opting for air rides,” Mr. Ananthagopan said. The arrival of these personalities, according to him, would help draw more sponsorships as was evident during the recent visits of Krishna Ella and B. Parthasarathy Reddy, chairman of Bharat Biotech International Limited and Hetero Group of companies respectively.
Dr. Ella had made a contribution of ₹1 crore for the free meal programme at the temple, while Mr. Reddy had promised to fund an infrastructure renovation project worth ₹4.5 crore.
Official sources, however, said the new proposal came even as the earlier plans to run heli-taxi services connecting Kochi and Nilackal had to be abandoned for lack of adequate demand.
Meanwhile, the hill shrine has reported a consistent surge in footfalls this season with over seven lakh devotees visiting in a span of 32 days. The income during the season too has risen sharply to ₹55 crore.