It was seaports once, dams and golf courses next, and now, it seems, airports.
Provinces nationwide have in the past gone on a planning and construction binge with major infrastructure projects like ports and dams, not bothering to study the feasibility of having too many of these in the country.
Now, many provincial leaders believe that their economies can develop more rapidly if they have airports.
A senior official from the central province of Binh Thuan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Thoi Bao Kinh Te Sai Gon (Sai Gon Economic Times), “I believe that an airport will help lift the development of Binh Thuan’s seaport and highway.
“The competition for investment in this kind of infrastructure is, however, very fierce.”
Meanwhile, a plan for a project to build an airport in the province’s capital of Phan Thiet is being completed and expected to obtain approval from the Ministry of Transport later this year.
Phan Thiet is among 26 airports, including 10 international ones, which are planned to go operational by 2020 under the national development plan for air transport development.
The airport in Binh Thuan, along with two others in the northern mountainous provinces of Lai Chau and Cao Bang, will be accorded priority in planning and construction, although the stated aim of the national plan is to promote air transportation in remote areas.
Many cities and provinces nationwide are in a frenzy to get approval and investment for building airports that they see as catalysts for economic development.
Many experts, however, are questioning the feasibility of this rush to build airports. They argue that an airport glut in the country will hardly promote economic efficiency.
The recent approval of Dong Nai-based Long Thanh International Airport, the country’s biggest airport when it goes operational in 2015, has come under public scrutiny.
Long Thanh Airport, to be built in three phases until 2035, is expected to replace the existing HCM City-based Tan Son Nhat Airport and become a regional hub for international airlines.
Under the project plan, the estimated US$6.7 billion required for the first phase will be raised mainly from the State budget, the sale of Government bonds and official development assistance loans.
“It would be a waste to spend $7-8 billion on building Long Thanh airport when we need only $1billion to upgrade and extend the Tan Son Nhat airport, which would be able to meet the increasing demand for at least 10 years,” said architect Ngo Viet Nam Son, who has 20 years of experience in the field.
Son, a member of the architects’ group that designed the South Sai Gon urban area, said “the Long Thanh airport should only be built after 10 years” as the country needs the money for other development projects.
Expressing a similar view, Prof Phan Van Truong of HCM City University of Architecture said the planning of Long Thanh airport should be seen in the conjunction with Tan Son Nhat.
Long Thanh Airport, 43km from Tan Son Nhat, is expected to handle 90 per cent of international flights and 20 per cent of domestic flights in the south between 2020 and 2035, while the one in HCM City’s airport will take remaining traffic of 10 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.
Truong said there was no need for two airports to be operational at the same time. The professor suggested that once Long Thanh Airport is put into operation, the land under the Tan Son Nhat airport should be used for restructuring HCM City’s urban area, which is not well planned at present. This would also partially meet expenses incurred to construct Long Thanh airport, he said.
The economic feasibility of airports planned by several other provinces including Thanh Hoa in the north, Quang Tri in the centre, Kon Tum in the Central Highlands, and An Giang in the south – is also being questioned.
An Giang Airport is expected to take more than VND3.4 trillion (over $165 million) in investment as well as 235ha of rice fields. That on Kon Tum would consume over VND1.5 trillion ($75 million) and take over more than 162ha of rubber plantations. Corresponding figures for Thanh Hoa Airport are VND2.6 trillion (nearly $127 million) and 177ha respectively.
Most local airports have been receiving State investment and many, like Chu Lai, Phu Cat, Lien Khuong, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot, are not operating effectively, an aviation administration official told Thoi Bao Kinh Te Sai Gon.
Some have lost business because of closure or cutting of flights by some airlines for lack of passengers.
Even the well-known Can Tho International Airport is among those operating ineffectively. It has been receiving less than 10 flights a day since its inauguration on January 1, 2011. With a $150 million investment, its original aim was to accommodate up to 5 million passengers a year.
The newspaper also cited experts as saying the investment of billions of US dollars in these airports should have been spent on land and rail road systems instead.
This would have made the national transportation system much more effective, the experts said.
For example, the Ministry of Transport has decided to upgrade Pleiku Airport in the Central Highlands with an investment of over VND2.2 trillion($107 million), but experts argue the money should be spent instead on building a highway from the airport to Pleiku’s neighbouring province of Kon Tum, 40km away.
Furthermore, current living standards in Viet Nam would prevent the aviation industry from making or providing benefits in these areas, the economist said. — VNS