Helicopter operators have slashed passenger fares to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and Kashmir by 40 percent to make it more affordable for pilgrims.
Two operators - Deccan Aviation and Himalayan Heli Services - ferry the pilgrims from Katra, the base camp of the pilgrimage, to Sanjhi Chhat, from where the shrine is a two-km trek.
It is a 12-km mountainous trek from Katra and pilgrims usually go either by foot or take a pony or palanquin.
Deccan Aviation started the chopper service between Katra and Sanjhi Chhat in October 2002 and its one-way fare was Rs 2,000 per passenger.
"Now Himalayan Heli Services has also introduced its chopper service recently at Rs 1,200 one-way per passenger. This forced the other service provider (Deccan) to also slash its rates," Puneet Kumar, additional chief executive officer of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, told IANS.
According to Kumar, the shrine board negotiated with Himalayan Heli Services to "come up with reduced rates to make it more affordable".
"Now even the middle and upper middle classes can afford the services - at least one-way," said Kumar.
The shrine board gets 10 percent of the chopper fare from the operators. While Deccan Aviation carries five passengers, Himalayan Heli Services carries four.
Kumar said: "Though the shrine board is losing monetarily but our prime concern is the facilitation of pilgrims."
Vaishno Devi is nestled in the Shivalik range in the Himalayan foothills, 56 km north of Jammu, and has become one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in north India. Last year a record number of nearly seven million pilgrims, from various parts of the country and abroad, visited the shrine.
Kumar added that the shrine board was also constructing "two state-of-the-art hangers" at the Katra helipad that would be completed by February end.
According to him, the hangers were "built at a cost of Rs 5.4 million". These hangers would be used for servicing and parking of helicopters.
Earlier, the helicopters had to go Delhi for servicing. "Now the service engineers can come here (Katra) and do the job. This will save both money and effort for operators," said Kumar.