In Part II, I put forward the idea of suburban development and multi-island cities in the Maldives, and I mentioned that one of the main things preventing it from happening is a proper public transport system. In this post, I will expand on the idea of connectivity as a catalyst for development, but I will look at a different kind of connection – air travel.
Maldives and Airports
If you ask any random non-Maldivian how many airports there are in the Maldives, their answer would most likely be “What’s the Maldives?”. If you then showed them some pictures of the islands, they would not think that you could fit an airport on even one island, let alone have eleven (and counting) scattered throughout the country.
At first, a number so high would seem excessive to this random person you are talking to, because the country is so small. But then they might think that number is justified because of how the islands are so dispersed. While it is true that having many airports makes travel between islands easier, I would still argue that the current number of airports cannot be justified. My argument can be summarised in two words: “cost” and “benefit”.
It goes without saying that airports cost a lot of money. Even small ones like the ones scattered throughout the Maldives can be quite expensive. The following are just some of the costs encountered during the construction of an airport:
- Buying land
- Clearing land
- Paving runway
- Runway marking and lighting
- Construction of control tower
- Construction of terminal
- Ongoing costs:
- Runway maintenance
It is because of all these costs that no one likes building new airports. China and India are pretty much the only two countries doing this. The rest of the world prefers to develop airports which are already there. It is a very risky business, and if you do not know exactly what you are going to get out of it, you will most likely end up losing money.
Sydney is a good example of how careful you need to be when building an airport. Sydney’s current international airport is congested at the best of times, and there is no room for expansion. It has been like this for a while. Despite this, only last year did the people in charge to finally give the green light for a new airport to be built further away from the city. And they had been talking about this new airport since the 1940s.
Compare this to the Maldives where it seems like they plan a new airport every other week on every other island. Obviously money is no object…
The costs of an airport are not only financial – particularly for places like the Maldives.
The biggest non-monetary cost is probably the environmental cost. For most airports around the world, the construction of an airport involves clearing land. For the Maldives, however, not only does land need to be cleared, in most cases it needs to be reclaimed. This does a lot of damage to the delicate marine ecosystems surrounding the islands, which is a bit ironic, because it is those same ecosystems that draw all the tourists into the country. The tourism industry is essentially destroying itself.
I would highly recommend you watch this documentary (which features Maldives) which goes into detail about the effects of dredging/land reclamation. (The full version used to be on YouTube, but it has been removed)
Besides the environmental cost, the construction of an airport also has a social cost. Once again, this impact is more pronounced in places like the Maldives. This is because entire communities sometimes have to be relocated, and unlike other countries, those communities represent a significant percentage of the country’s population. This happened with Gan, it happened with Hulhule, and it might happen with Hanimaadhoo.
Then there are the less obvious social costs, like the social stratification which arises due to the fact that only certain people can afford the airport’s services. And of course the people who fund the construction of these airports like our good friends China and Saudi Arabia have their own agendas to push, which causes a whole heap of problems as well.
The negative aspects of airports are mostly found in the construction stage. Once this is over, and the airport begins to function properly, there can be several positive things that come out of it.
One of the obvious ones that I mentioned earlier is that airports make it much easier to travel. For the Maldives, it means more tourists going to more places throughout the country, which in turn means more money and therefore more development for those places.
Other benefits include more jobs and improvements in the quality of life. You only need to look at how drastically life in the Maldives (and particularly Malé) has changed since the construction of Hulhule airport to realise the tremendous impact an airport can have. (Yes, I know it hasn’t all been good)
The benefits of an airport can only be achieved if the airport is used to its full potential, which is not happening with the overwhelming majority of airports in the Maldives. So even though I admire the government’s attempt to bring about development through connection, I believe their efforts are misplaced. Although, knowing the Maldivian government, that may have been intentional:
What Should Be Done?
I’m not going to pretend I have the best solution for the issue at hand, but I know that whatever I suggest is much better than what the government is currently doing.
Firstly, we need to stop building new airports. Instead, whatever money was going to be spent on new airports should be spent on improving the existing regional ones. And by improving, I mean the following:
- Extending runways (where possible) so that they can at least accommodate narrow body jets (e.g. A320, B737). This would mean extending them up to around 2,400 metres, although 3,000+ metres would be ideal.
- Upgrading the airports to international status in the cases where runways can be extended
Secondly, there needs to be direct flights to/from key inbound markets. This is probably the make-it-or-break-it factor when it comes to deriving any sort of benefit from the airport, because it’s the tourists bringing in all the money; not the locals. And tourists are not going to want to fly from Europe/China/wherever to Malé and then to a regional airport and then go to their resort.
Since, it is very likely that most airlines would not want to add extra routes to their network, there will have to be some kind of government policy forcing certain (or all) airlines to alter their routes and use the regional airports. If they have an incentive like lower landing fees, there is no reason they wouldn’t agree.
Finally, the airports must be able to deliver the same (or better) experience that people would get from INIA. This includes things like making it quick and easy for tourists to get to their resorts, and having all the proper services and amenities.
Getting the existing airports up to these standards would allow them to be used more efficiently and effectively. Then Malé-type development can reach other parts of the country.
What About Domestic Travel?
Just build seaplane terminals on inhabited islands and start using those. It would be much cheaper and much easier. It’s actually surprising that this isn’t what was done in the first place.
Of course this would involve either starting a new seaplane airline that doesn’t serve resorts only, or convincing one of the existing seaplane airlines to start serving inhabited islands (I’m not sure if this happens to a certain extent already).
Signs of Change?
A few things have happened recently which may indicate that the country is headed in the right direction. First there was the extension of the runway at Gan airport. More recently, SriLankan Airlines announced that they would commence flights to Gan from Colombo in December (hopefully they start a trend), and Trans Maldivian Airways announced that they would set up a seaplane base there.
Still, I will not be satisfied until the government announces that they will not build any more airports. I would be even happier if they scrap the plans for airports in Kulhudhuffushi and Funadhoo. Because even though I believe in regional development, this is not the way to go about it (I would consider that to be an objective statement).
People who live on these underdeveloped islands should not be fooled into thinking that an airport will solve their problems. In fact, it seems like the only reason the government says they will build these airports is because they don’t want to give the islanders anything that would actually improve their living conditions. And even the government doesn’t seem to realise that there is too much cost and too little benefit. In the all end, all they are doing by building airports is making connections easier. However, if they don’t improve the way they go about making those connections, it is unlikely that they will be a catalyst for development. Once a few more people realise this, we may start seeing some real change for the better.