Considered laggard until recently, the airport is set to be the first national pride project to be completed
BHAIRAHAWA, June 24: If things go as planned, Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA) in Bhairahawa will be the first national pride project of the country to be completed. The work to upgrade the existing domestic airport into a full-fledged international airport is going in full swing with a target to complete it by December this year.
The much-awaited second international airport is not only expected to increase the flow of tourists to Lumbini -- the birthplace of Gautam Buddha and a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it will also serve as an alternative to the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu which is said to be approaching saturation point.
Started in January 2015, the completion of the first national pride project will become a major achievement for the government that has been seeing endless delays and time overruns in almost all development projects. Out of the 21 national pride projects, Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project and Melamchi Drinking Water Supply Project are the other two that have made highest progress. Both the projects are set to be completed by next year.
While the airport project also faced problems similar to other development projects in the country, it is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Upon completion, the international airport is expected to serve 760,000 passengers annually by 2030, including 280,000 visitors to Lumbini which lies 20 kilometers west of the GBIA.Project officials say that the completion of GBIA with enable airlines to establish direct air services from countries like India as well as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, which Buddhist population is high, immediately and from China, South Korea and Japan in the medium term.
The government is implementing the project with the financial support of Asian Development Bank (ADB). The project is estimated to cost Rs 6.23 billion. Of the total cost, the ADB is providing $58.50 million ($42.75 in loans and $15.75 million in grants), while Opec Fund for International Development (OFID) is chipping in with $15 million as loan financing. The remaining cost will be borne by the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) -- the civil aviation regulator as well as airport operator of the country.
The ADB is financing the project as part of its initiatives to develop and improve tourism-related infrastructure in Nepal, India and Bangladesh under its South Asia Tourism Infrastructure Development Project.
Observers say that the completion of the airport project also marks a success for the ADB in Nepal where most of its projects including Melamchi Drinking Water Supply Project are struggling to make progress.
Albeit late, a national pride project is nearing completion. According to a project official, over 70 percent works of the airport has been completed. He vowed to complete the remaining 30 percent works in next six months. “We are working in full swing to complete construction work by December this year,” said Prabesh Adhikari, the project director of GBIA.
The project, which was originally scheduled to be completed in December 2017, still remains incomplete due to various obstacles. First it was the 2015 earthquakes. The Madhes movement and subsequent unofficial blockade imposed by India the same year adversely affected construction works due to the shortage of fuel and other materials. The project was paralyzed for over six months in 2017 over payment dispute between the Chinese contractor, Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group of China, and its sub-contractor -- a firm owned by former Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal's son. The construction work resumed only after the government warned the Chinese firm of contract termination.
Apart from major factors like the 2015 earthquakes, the project also got frequently bogged down frequently over issues like payment process, environmental concerns and transfer of project staff. Lately, the Butwal Sub-Metropolitan City denied the project extraction of sand and gravels from Tinau River, demanding higher prices for the construction materials.
The dispute over price of the construction materials not only affected the project works, but also shed a light on how development projects in Nepal could fall hostage to non-cooperation from another government unit. As the row over the price rate of the construction materials has now been resolved, project officials say that they have now been able to fully focus their attention toward completing project on time.
“The sub-metropolitan city should not have been so much obsessed with the collection of revenue from the supply of construction materials to the national pride project,” said Adhikari. “This has taught an important lesson to the respective authority."
"After all, it's the project that will pay off to this province and the local units in the long run. Now with the issue resolved, the project is on track to meet the construction deadline of December,” added Adhikari.
With over 70 percent of civil works completed, the CAAN is now pursuing the second component of the project which is related to the communication, navigation and surveillance system.
Toward civil works, the construction of the last storey of the control tower building is remaining. Apart from that, finishing of the control tower and terminal building is also due. Workers are currently laying truss over the terminal building. While the runway has been blacktopped, works related to marking and installation of lights is also underway.
“We are almost at the final stage of the civil works, while the process installing communication, navigation and surveillance equipment has also moved ahead,” said Adhikari.
A team of Aero Thai along with the American consultant is arriving at the site for the navigation and communication works very soon, according to project. “The contractor has already ordered the manufacturing of the equipment needed for the airport. However, it will take some time for the production, shipment, installation, testing, commissioning and calibration of the equipment. These works will move in schedule and we will be done with the civil works and equipment installation by December,” claimed Adhikari.
Does that mean that the international airport will come into operation by December? Very unlikely. There are other formalities, including certification from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), that need to be completed before the airport becomes ready for international flights. Also, there has not been any substantial progress in terms of courting international airlines to make commercial flights to and from this new destination.
While private sector leaders in Bhairahawa want to see test flight in the airport following completion of the runway, a breakthrough in project implementation, the CAAN does not seem to be in a hurry. "Conducting test flight is not a big deal. However, we are very cautious that the rush to bring the airport into operation in no way leaves room for compromise on any international standards,” said Adhikari.
He said that the airport will be ready for operation by March next year after all post-construction works including certification and documentation works are completed.
PRIVATE SECTOR: FRUSTRATED, BUT OPTIMISTIC
Pinning high hopes on the international airport, the private sector has been pouring billions of rupees in new businesses, particularly in hotel and hospitality sectors. However, they have grown impatient with the delay in bringing the project into operation. According to them, the operation of the airport will increase the flow of tourists and increase their businesses.
“The plan to build international level airport encouraged private sector to pour in their investments. If you see the cumulative investment of the private sector in various businesses here, it is higher than the investment in the airport,” Ram Kumar Sharma, the immediate past president of Siddhartha Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI). “As the airport is yet to be completed, there is no business yet. But investors have to pay high interest rates which is driving up their cost,” added Sharma.
Hotel Pawan Palace, the first five-star hotel in Lumbini, epitomizes private sector's plight. The construction of the five-star hotel with a total investment of Rs 2 billion started after the airport upgradation work started. Now, the five-star hotel is struggling to come into full-fledged operation mainly due to the delay in construction of the international airport which could bring hordes of travelers to Lumbini, said Pawan Halway, the managing director of the hotel.
“The international airport has not been completed yet. Without international airport, we cannot get guests as we projected. On the other hand, the ongoing road expansion and dust has been driving away tourists who wanted to come here,” said Halway. “Delay in the project by even a year means a huge loss for us. We have withstood the losses for a year. Now, we cannot bear anymore,” he said, warning that many businesses could go bust due to the rising loan repayment costs coupled with absence of businesses as expected.
However, private sector is bullish about the business prospects once the airport comes into operation. “This project is a game-changer for us. Lately, it has taken a momentum. We want to see it into operation by the start of the New Year 2020,” said Sharma.
Halway agreed with Sharma. “Our fate and fortune are tied with this international airport. We wish the project will not face further delay under any pretext,” he added.
ADB's Country Director Mukhtor Khamudkhanov is also impressed with the recent progress at the project site. “There were initial delays in the construction of this airport. But, the progress has picked up and we are very happy with the current progress,” said Khamudkhanov.
NO BUSINESS PLAN
While construction is on the last leg, the CAAN is yet to have a business strategy to operate the new international airport. Earlier in May, the cabinet took a decision to operate the airport on government-to-government modality. However, the CAAN is yet to make a concrete move for implementing the decision on operation modality. The decision has paved the way, in principle, for operation modality of the airport. While observers say that the CAAN should have worked in parallel to find out airlines interested to make flights to the airport upon its completion, there has not been much homework on this front yet.
“Airlines making flights to Kathmandu will be the ones who will be providing service to and from the new airport. Our focus is on completing construction of the airport first,” Pradeep Adhikari, a director at the CAAN, said. “Once the airport is ready, we will invite representatives of airlines flying to Nepal for a discussion for making flights to and from Bhairahawa,” he added.
Country Director (Nepal)
Asian Development BankApart from improving air connectivity to Lumbini, the airport will also be an advantage for the aviation sector as it will become an alternative to the Tribhuvan International Airport for landing in case there is emergency or bad weather in Kathmandu. Once this new international airport comes into operation, tourists from traditional markets as well as from other countries will also increase, helping to propel Nepal's tourism sector. There were initial delays in the construction of this airport. But, the progress has picked, and we are very happy with the current progress. I am pretty sure that with the joint efforts of the government and the CAAN, we can ensure that the project will be successfully completed.
Gautam Buddha International Airport
We are working on a full swing to complete the project by December this year. There are some works related to communication, navigation and surveillance system remaining which will be expedited to meet the deadline. The private sector's frustration due to the delay is understandable. However, the airport construction is not like building a road. It's a sensitive project. In no way, we can compromise on the quality of our works. What if we cannot get the certificate from the ICAO due to safety or quality issue resulting from haste? The private sector has been demanding test flight. I do not think this a big deal. But, our focus is on completing it by December and bringing it into operation by March next year.