On Wednesday this week, Airports Vanuatu Ltd, or AVL, quietly published a quarter-page advertisement in the Daily Post requesting expressions of interest to construct new international and domestic terminals at Bauerfield airport, along with what they coyly refer to as ‘associated infrastructure’ and a business park.

If the concept drawings are any indication, what’s being proposed is a complete transformation of Vanuatu’s main international airport.

AVL officials are quick to point out that they are deliberately avoiding making any assumptions about what the winning proposal will look like. But the illustrations make clear that they want to see facilities for four wide-body jet aircraft to load and unload simultaneously, at a completely new terminal building.

Across the tarmac, taxiways, service hangars and administrative building occupy what is currently plantation land. Air Vanuatu has already indicated that it wants to move its administrative and catering facilities to Bauerfield. AVL intends to construct the necessary facilities and then to lease them back to the airline.

Deadline for expressions of interest is June 24th, indicating the urgency with which both government and AVL officials are treating this work.

Asked about how the project would be funded, AVL chairman Adrian Sinclair indicated that, again, he wasn’t making any assumptions. The government of Vanuatu has requested that the World Bank offer of nearly 6 billion vatu should be adjusted to allow for these plans to reach fruition, but Mr Sinclair made it clear that they would consider other contingencies as well if they improved the country’s chances of getting a more appropriate outcome sooner.

In a recent edition of Buzz FM96’s Coffee & Controversy talk show, Infrastructure and Public Utilities Minister Jotham Napat indicated that the government has been considering numerous submissions concerning all three of the country’s international airports.

AVL chairman Adrian Sinclair confirmed that about 10 entities had expressed interest. Queries have come from both Europe and Asia.

Mr Sinclair agreed that each of the airports required attention, outlining repair and maintenance work as well as facilities upgrades that were required for each. “We will be requesting expressions of interest for the other two airports…” he said.

But he argued that most countries used a ‘hub and spoke’ model for their national air infrastructure—that is, tourists would arrive at one location and fly on from there to their final destination if necessary.

The company is willing to consider an omnibus bid to upgrade all three airports. “That’s out there…. It may be of interest to the parties tendering.”

Asked about whether the existing international and domestic terminal buildings would be upgraded or replaced, Mr Sinclair refused to speculate. The purpose of the exercise, he said with a smile, “is to get input from people who build airports, and to give us what they think would be the best alternative, rather than us, or the World Bank consultants telling us where to go.”

Any project would of course have to meet international safety standards. “There’s no point in approving a project that we can’t get sign-off on,” he said.

AVL is keeping its options open about the ultimate scope of the upgrade. Asked about the price tag, Sinclair refused to be drawn. “There is a range…. We have an idea of what that range is; we just don’t want to put it out there for the moment.”

Pressed, he smiled and said it would be “significantly less than the last offer that was on the table—that was $350 million.”

Public and private sector stakeholders all agree that an investment on the scale of that required for a Bauerfield upgrade would probably involve some sort of economic sweetener. The Green Fields proposal alluded to earlier included an exclusive resort. The prospect of a proposal that comprises an ‘end-to-end’ approach—that is, one where the developer ‘owns’ the tourist from the moment they leave their home to the moment they return—has been widely touted as the most likely.

This implies the construction of at least one high-volume, high-class resort.

Local tourism operators are generally optimistic about such a prospect. It would be a textbook case of a rising tide lifting all boats. Increased inbound tourist numbers mean increased flight arrivals, and no matter how many charters land, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll see more scheduled services too. Tour and attraction operators, restaurant and shop owners all benefit too, if only from the overflow.

The value of Vanuatu as a destination improves dramatically in such a scenario, and that benefits all of our resorts.

Part of the drive to see work progress quickly derives from bitter experience. Both Adrian Sinclair and Jotham Napat—along with most of their colleagues—know all too well how changeable the political weather can be. But they are intent on getting the work done, and done right.

If progress to date is any indication, the country has got better than even odds of seeing significant increases in flight arrivals and plane sizes, along with improvements in our terminals and other facilities.

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