Sweet ‘n’ Soar

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Photos: Ankush Vats
Photos: Ankush Vats

A newly laid road with shiny signboards in the once sleepy town of Palampur in Kangra valley of Himachal Pradesh guides you to Bir Billing, the venue for the Paragliding World Cup 2015. The entire region is abuzz with highoctane activity, probably unprecedented. The district administration has its hands full ensuring smooth functioning of the event, the local ‘wine shops’ are being mobbed by customers and taxi drivers find it difficult to steer through the region (private cars were banned on the route during the World Cup to control the traffic).

Bir Billing, overlooking the Dhauladhar mountain range on the one side and sprawling tea estates on the other, is said to be one of the most sought after locations for aero sports in the world. It is hosting such a high-profile event for the first time, though it has earlier hosted a pre-World Cup in 2013. “There used to be national-level paragliding competitions here. But we have never seen tourists in such large numbers,” says 40-year-old automobile mechanic Shashi Singh, who is capitalising on the occasion by renting out his personal motorbikes.

Shashi is not alone. The international event has brought huge financial benefit to the locals. Ravikant Sharma, who owns a cycle shop in Bir, has bought 10 new cycles to rent out to tourists.

The Paragliding World Cup 2015, organised by the Airport Authority of India and Billing Paragliding Association, was won by 26-year-old Swiss national Michael Kuffer. As many as 130 pilots from over 35 countries, including three Indians, participated in the weeklong World Cup. The competitors were given tasks which were to be performed while flying in order to gain points.

Interestingly, Kuffer didn’t win any of the tasks but his steady performance throughout the championship led him to win the trophy. Among the Indians, Ajay Kumar was at 31st position, followed by Gurpreet Dhindsa at 63rd.

The potential of Bir Billing as a world class location for aero sports was recognised in the 1980s when a hang gliding event was organised here by the state’s former Rural Development Minister Sant Ram Sharma. Sharma wanted Bir Billing to become ‘Paradise of Paragliding’.

However, for two decades it did not happen — until Sharma’s son Sudhir Sharma, the hill state’s tourism minister and president of Billing Paragliding Association, played an instrumental role in bringing the World Cup to India.

World champion Michael Kuffer says he was overjoyed by flying in India. “This is no doubt an amazing site for paragliding. This is amongst the best places I’ve flown to. I loved it here. However, it’d be really great if the infrastructure in and around Bir Billing is improved.” He was referring to the lack of tourist facilities such as hotels and connectivity to the main city

However, the organisers more than made up for it by setting up luxury campsites for guests and competitors. Mobile atms as well as telecom towers were installed to ensure uninterrupted service. “But this is all temporary. It will all be gone when the World Cup is over: the atms, the mobile towers, everything. Permanent efforts should be made so that tourists come to this place throughout the year,” said a senior police official deputed at the landing site.

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