Indian aviation is witnessing a boom in international travel from smaller cities, with tier-2 and -3 hubs experiencing a significant surge in passenger traffic. 

According to data provided by the Airports Authority of India, cities like Trichy (15.1 per cent increase), Calicut (11.3 per cent increase), Amritsar (30 per cent increase) and Varanasi (6.7 per cent increase) saw impressive growth in the financial year 2023-24 (April to March) compared with the previous year.

Notably, Indore witnessed a staggering 175.3 per cent rise in passenger traffic and Surat’s traffic grew by a substantial 126.2 per cent. Gaya, another fast-growing tier-2 city, reported a 47.6 per cent increase in international travellers.

Airlines’ observations

This trend aligns with observations from major airlines. Air India Express reports a “significant surge in passenger traffic from these markets, especially to the Middle East and Southeast Asia,” exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Tara Naidu, VP of International Business at Air India Express, elaborates, “Our passenger carriage has not only rebounded to pre-COVID levels but has surpassed them, displaying a robust recovery.” To meet this demand, they’ve bolstered capacity on these routes by 10 per cent and introduced new flight routes like Hyderabad to Dammam, Lucknow to Muscat, Surat to Dubai, Thiruvananthapuram to Doha and Mangaluru to Jeddah.

Indigo mirrors the tier -2/3 city focus. An Indigo spokesperson said, “We expect the demand for air travel to remain robust, and the overall operating environment to remain conducive. Our international ASKs grew by 47 per cent YoY in the quarter ending December 2023.  We see significant potential in tier-2 markets for international travel, as these cities are emerging as gateways to global destinations. Our share of international travel rose to 27 per cent of ASK in FY24 from 23 per cent in FY23.” The airline is expanding its international network, currently flying to 33 destinations from both major metros and 12 non-metro cities in India.

Experts believe this surge is driven by a confluence of factors. Increased disposable income among the expanding middle class in tier-2 and -3 cities fuels a desire for leisure travel. Improved infrastructure in these regions, including airports and transportation links, makes international travel more accessible.

Sunny Sodhi, Managing Director of FCM Travel India explained that tier-2 cities, now business hubs with startups, lacked direct flights. Business travellers had to connect through metros. This shift in options aligns with airlines targeting the Middle East and Gulf regions popular for business travel from these cities.

Meanwhile, Cleartrip data confirms this trend, showcasing a significant rise in bookings for international travel from Vizag, Pune, Patna, Nagpur, Lucknow and Jaipur. Fares from these cities have increased by 6 per cent for summer travel, but bookings have skyrocketed by a factor of 1.85 times.