New airport in Beja

Tourism in the Alentejo could be on the verge of an unprecedented boom as work on the future Beja airport nears conclusion. It will be the culmination of a €33 million investment to convert a former military base into a international civil airport that is of strategic importance for both regional and national tourism and which will accommodate long-haul aircraft such as the wide-body Airbus A340 or the high-body Boeing 747.

Initial hopes that Beja airport would open this year were dashed after a series of “planned delays” saw its predicted opening date pushed forward to 2010.

In an exclusive interview with The Portugal News José Queiroz, president of EDAB – the Beja Airport Development Company – confirmed “It will be next year”.

“I don’t know exactly when, as it hasn’t been discussed, but it will preferably be during the first three months of next year”.

“I don’t think it is necessary to look beyond that deadline”, he said.

José Queiroz, an electro-technical engineer with nearly four decades’ experience and projects that include the development of Macau airport to his name, held the interview with The Portugal News at EDAB’s Beja headquarters on Monday this week, having travelled down from Lisbon.

Mr. Queiroz was nominated by the Government to oversee the project.

The airport’s management is currently in the midst of being handed over to ANA – Airports of Portugal, who are now also responsible for negotiations with airlines, none of which have, as yet, been confirmed.

Initial reports suggested Beja would be an exclusively ‘low-cost’ airport, with Irish airline Ryanair being indicated as its key carrier.

At the time of these reports, in February this year, Ryanair’s European Communications Manager Daniel de Carvalho told The Portugal News: “Ryanair is negotiating with well above 200 airports. All those negotiations are confidential. There is no such agreement as referred if not announced by Ryanair”.

On Tuesday The Portugal News spoke to ANA Press Officer Rui Oliveira who acknowledged the general growing interest in which airlines will be operating from Beja, but at the time of going to press could not confirm names.

José Queiroz confirmed that various airlines “within the low-cost genre” had expressed “direct and indirect” interest in operating from Beja, as had many of the region’s main tour operators, who are considering operating charter flights from that airport “to bring people to their resorts”.

“For marketing purposes, and for an initial period, it is probable that Beja’s operations will commence with low-cost carriers and just a few flights a day”, said Mr. Queiroz, who added that with the progressive growth of the infra-structure, medium and long-haul flights to destinations such as China and the USA could be introduced.

No restrictions apply to the size or type of aircraft that can land or take off from Beja airport, which has a runway of over three kilometers in length and is designed to accommodate up to 13 Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 at any one time, or a combination of five of the afore-mentioned aircraft along with five wide or high-body aircraft. This means Beja could eventually offer a wider variety of destinations and direct flights than the Algarve’s Faro airport, which mainly operates short-haul flights to European destinations.

“Faro has a problem with its runway that we don’t have; Beja’s runway has no limitations regarding large aircraft. This is an advantage that could offer solutions when in coordination with Faro. Not in competition, in coordination”, said José Queiroz.

It also means Beja is equipped to alleviate Lisbon of any of its flights until the new Alcochete airport is constructed, “in situations of congestion or bad weather”.

Located midway between Lisbon and the Algarve (the Portuguese capital, and one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations respectively), Beja airport will enable the Alentejo region to give its better-known counterparts a run for their money.

New road connections to the airport from main motorways have also been confirmed for the near future to improve accessibility and reduce travel time from north and south.

On opening, the airport will have a capacity of processing up to 1.5 million passengers per year and offers the flexibility to cater for double that amount with subsequent growth.

It will receive a maximum of 10-12 flights per day, “to start with”, and has a cargo storage capacity of 30-40 tons, which can be tripled with demand.

During initial operations Beja airport will create between 15 to 25 direct jobs as well as “four to five times” as much indirect employment in related sectors like catering, hospitality and tourism.

Furthermore, several private companies have expressed interest in taking over the aircraft’s maintenance service.

Mr Queiroz explained: “Initially we had allocated ‘spaces’ for aircraft maintenance, but now it will be done in a hanger. Fortunately there are various companies interested in making this investment which will be a bonus for the planes as their safety at Beja is more than ensured”.

Shortly after news broke that Beja would be home to an international airport numerous tourism projects began to emerge, many of which are now under construction.

Key UK tour operators are also reportedly starting to look to the Alentejo as an alternative destination to the Algarve.

“Beja airport will be an important pillar to local tourism and development” José Queiróz explained, adding it is a “great opportunity” for a region he describes as “economically depressed”.

“The Alentejo has an excellent atmosphere, it has space, but it does not have people. It needs to develop rapidly and increase its population to stimulate economic activity”.

He estimated that the economic crisis has set back growth of both the airport and other projects in the region by “three to four years”.

Investment in Beja airport, an estimated €33 million, is considered “much lower than the traditional cost of building an airport”.

Mr Queiroz explained this was greatly due to the fact that “fundamental elements, namely the runway, which is generally the most complicated and expensive part to construct, were already here”.

Beja airport was originally built as an air base by the German military during the Cold War in the 1960’s. Its purpose was to provide a location that was out of reach of the former Soviet Union’s missiles. When the Germans moved out following the diffusion of the Cold War, ‘Base 11’ was handed over to the Portuguese air force, which to this day uses it for training purposes. It will continue to function as a military training base at the same time as serving as a civilian airport.

Until recently the Alentejo was overshadowed in terms of tourism by the likes of Lisbon and the Algarve, but following the implantation of a regional tourism entity in December last year and the financial grants that came with it, the Alentejo achieved its best figures ever. On a national scale the Alentejo’s performance was one of few with outstandingly positive results.

António Ceia da Silva, President of the Alentejo Regional Tourism Entity (ERT Alentejo) speaking to The Portugal News earlier this week, said: “We are enjoying our best year to date”.

“We have had an overall rise of 22 percent in terms of occupancy figures, which rose to 23 percent in August. Overall intake and revenue also increased significantly, meaning this year the Alentejo has grown in all senses”.

Various factors have contributed to the rise in regional demand, amongst which Mr Ceia da Silva believes is the fact many Portuguese decided to “stay in Portugal this year instead of travelling abroad because of Swine Flu”.

But one of the most significant contributions could be the fact that prior to December 2009 the Alentejo did not have a general tourism-governing entity.

Following the implementation of the ERT the region was allocated an unprecedented budget to promote itself within Portugal. A dynamic national marketing campaign was launched this year and is believed to have greatly strengthened the region’s pull.

Beja airport is now being considered a key element to ensuring the continuation of growth in the Alentejo.



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