x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Fujairah's phoenix waits to rise from the airport that time forgot

It is the airport that time forgot. Built to handle 2 million passengers, just 13,107 people flew into and out of Fujairah International Airport last year - its worst on record.

The airport is waiting to capitalise on the rapid emergence of Fujairah as a strategic energy and shipping hub. Sarah Dea/The National
The airport is waiting to capitalise on the rapid emergence of Fujairah as a strategic energy and shipping hub. Sarah Dea/The National

Once a bustling regional hub, the eastern emirate's air passenger and cargo facility has fallen into disuse and last year suffered its worst year on record. But plans are afoot to revive the country's tourism trade and the reversal of the airport's fortunes is a key element, Sean Cronin reports:

It is the airport that time forgot. Built to handle 2 million passengers, just 13,107 people flew into and out of the facility last year - its worst on record.

The arrival and departures halls are deserted. The passport control officials have no passports to stamp and there are no queues of people at the X-ray machines.

The only discernible sound outside is the pinging noise made by the drawstrings against the flagpoles on a windy March morning. Welcome to Fujairah International Airport.

"It's a terminal in waiting," says Charles Hajdu, the airport's business development manager, a Briton who arrived in the emirate four years ago.

Now the airport is waiting to capitalise on the rapid emergence of Fujairah as a strategic energy and shipping hub.

In the empty airport restaurant, Mr Hajdu sketches out on a paper napkin his plan to reverse the decline in passenger numbers. On the wall a clock is stopped at 4pm next to an empty frame that should hold a screen displaying departure and arrival times - but instead just reveals the wall behind.

There is no movement on the runway and most of the planes visible from the restaurant have not flown in years. They have simply been abandoned by their owners, mainly from the former Soviet republics. Now there are so many of them a recycling company will soon start picking through their fuselages to salvage everything from engine parts to seat-belt buckles.

It is about six years since Fujairah airport welcomed its last paying passenger on a scheduled flight. Since then, a trickle of charters carrying winter-sun seekers from countries such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan account for most of its visitors - but only for a few months of the year. That is hardly enough activity to keep even a fraction of its 500 full-time staff busy.

But a wave of fresh investment into the emirate and the addition of hundreds of new hotel rooms could provide a desperately needed lift for both the airport and the emirate.

Billions of dollars are being pumped into Fujairah's oil, gas and shipping industries as the country's eastern seaboard assumes an increasingly strategic role.

A new overland pipeline from Abu Dhabi that will allow crude oil to bypass the Strait of Hormuz by exiting through Fujairah will play a key part in the revival of the region. The pipeline could become operational as early as this year.

The Port of Fujairah is also being expanded with a vast strategic grain store under construction and more berths being added to cope with bigger ships. Shopping malls are springing up in the town centre and a new motorway has cut 45 minutes from the journey time to Dubai, improving its connectivity with the country's western seaboard.

New resorts are also appearing on the motorway that runs north out of Fujairah town as more visitors come from Dubai on weekend breaks and tour operators bring busloads of tourists from overseas.

"You can feel it," says Satish Gujaran, a manager at the Sandy Beach Hotel, a popular destination for tourists from Russia and central Asia, who account for about a third of guests. "We are getting a lot more enquiries."

While the growth in the availability of hotel rooms in Fujairah has forced a cut in rates, the Sandy Beach Hotel expects to attract more visitors landing in Dubai and Sharjah and is planning to add rooms to cope with the anticipated increase in trade.

"Tourism is working hard in Fujairah but the industry is still like a newborn," says Mr Gujaran.

When he first came to the UAE 16 years ago, Mr Gujaran landed at Fujairah airport. But these days most of his guests find their way to the resort by road - either Dubai residents or holidaymakers who have landed in Dubai, Sharjah or Ras Al Khaimah.

Further down the coast at the Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, the outlook is similarly upbeat. A room here costs upwards of US$300 (Dh1,101) a night at this time of year and demand is strong despite the addition of new resorts in the area.

"The lull we went through a few years ago is definitely on the way out," says Patrick Antaki, the general manager of the resort. About 70 per cent of its guests are tourists, predominantly from Russia, Britain and Germany.

If the hotels are profiting from the fresh influx of tourists and business travellers, the same cannot be said for an airport that had its worst year on record last year - handling about the same number of passengers in total that would go through Dubai International Airport in just a few hours.

The success of its neighbour to the west is part of the problem it now faces as more cargo and passengers choose to enter and leave the country through Dubai.

At one time, Fujairah airport's cheap aircraft-parking fees made it economical to transport cargo from larger UAE airports by road for onward transportation from the eastern emirate.

It is cheaper to park a plane in Fujairah airport for a week than a car at Dubai Airport, notes Mr Hajdu.

But the opening of Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai in 2010 for cargo operations has made it increasingly difficult for Fujairah to compete and cargo volumes have steadily declined while Dubai's business has grown over the same period.

The latest data from Dubai International Airport shows air cargo volumes jumped 6.5 per cent to 157,492 tonnes in February compared with a year earlier.

"We have seen the cargo market decline because of Al Maktoum Airport and we recognise that we will not be a main player in this market," says Mr Hajdu.

But the airport is aiming to revive its flagging passenger business and hopes to boost passenger traffic by a factor of 10 this year. The increasing inventory of hotel rooms in Fujairah should also create potential to grow the charter business that has been historically held back by a lack of available rooms for arriving guests from northern and eastern Europe.

Much will depend on the success of a new airline promising daily flights to the capital that was supposed to start in January. The launch of Eastern Express was delayed by regulatory objections to its plan to lease aircraft for the route. Now the fledgling operator plans to buy its own plane to overcome the problem.

The resumption of scheduled flights to the airport would be an important milestone in the development of tourism in the emirate and help it become a more efficient place to do business.

It would also provide a desperately needed boost for Fujairah Airport itself with its rows of ageing and abandoned passenger jets gathering dust on the apron, waiting to be gutted and stripped of their valuable parts.

Until then it remains an airport in waiting.

 

scronin@thenational.ae

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