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Airport rehabilitation project raising eyebrows in Egypt

Egypt has already opened two new airports this year, which has people wondering if spending $62.4 million to renovate one in a remote desert area is necessary.

CAIRO — As Egypt continues upgrading its St. Catherine International Airport at considerable cost, critics are questioning whether the effort will ever pay off.

The comprehensive renovation in South Sinai province is estimated to cost 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($62.4 million). The two-phase project includes the annexation of 1,000 acres to the existing 465 and will increase passenger and flight capacity and establish a number of new administrative and technical facilities, including a VIP lounge. The first phase should be complete by mid-month.

The airport's existing runway has been upgraded and widened from 36 meters (118 feet) to 45 meters (148 feet). A second runway is under construction. Also, work to repave and repair the 5-kilometer (3-mile ) road to the airport began in September.

The project is part of preparations for the annual St. Catherine Religious Tolerance Forum, set for Oct. 10-12 in the town of St. Catherine, which is about 12 miles from the airport.

Ahmed Adel, a pilot and chairman of EgyptAir Holding, told Al-Monitor the terminal, which now can handle only 80 passengers, is being expanded to accommodate 650 in an area of about 5,558 square meters (almost 60,000 square feet), while a parking area is being established in front of the terminal for 300 cars. To accommodate an expected increase in traffic volume, the second phase will establish another building covering 7,000 square meters (almost 75,350 square feet) that can handle 900 more passengers, a new entrance to the airport, a fence and a parking lot capable of holding 450 cars and 15 buses.

No timetable has been announced for completing the project.

Critics of the extensive renovations point out that two other airports launched this year. In July, officials inaugurated the Capital International Airport in the new administrative capital east of Cairo. Also, the Sphinx International Airport on the western side of Cairo was inaugurated Jan. 26 to alleviate congestion at Cairo International Airport (northeast of Cairo), at a cost of about 300 million pounds, or $18.4 million.

Economics professor Yomn al-Hamaki at Ain Shams University told Al-Monitor by phone that the government has been showing off huge development projects that have no apparent means of paying off in economic returns.

Hamaki said the billion-pound cost of upgrading the St. Catherine airport is a huge sum compared with the expected return. She believes the renovations are merely designed to impress foreign delegations expected to attend the forum. Once the event is over, she said, the airport won’t be used frequently because St. Catherine is in a remote desert area that can't sustain a big facility.

Said Sadek, a political sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor by phone that flying is too expensive for most Egyptians, so the airport won't see much domestic use. A flight from Cairo to St. Catherine costs 1,000 pounds to 1,200 pounds, or $65 to $75, which is a huge amount considering the other available means. A bus trip, he said, costs 80 pounds to 180 pounds, or about $5 to $11.

He pointed out that the airports near the Sphinx and the new administrative capital, which were established at huge cost, have yet to prove profitable due to the stagnant state of tourism in the country and because most Egyptians prefer other means of transport. He doesn't expect the St. Catherine airport renovations to be profitable.

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