AIRPORTS are strategic national assets which should receive high priority when it comes to funding and it is in this vein that we call on fiscal authorities to urgently release funds for the completion of the Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport.
While we welcome reports that work on the $150 million rehabilitation and expansion project of the Victoria Falls International Airport has started, we bemoan the slow pace of the JMN project whose commissioning has missed several deadlines due to funding constraints.
The project, which has been progressing at a snail pace for almost a decade, stands at the heart of efforts to revive Bulawayo as it is the gateway to the city for various international destinations.
The city cannot attract meaningful investment if its crucial infrastructure such as the airport is not up to standard and that is why it is essential that the project is completed speedily so that international airlines which are making a comeback into Zimbabwe can consider Bulawayo as a potential destination.
The airport was reportedly 98 percent complete in December last year with authorities saying the project needed only a few touch ups.
Addressing journalists after touring the site, the Minister of Transport, Communications and Infrastructural Development, Cde Nicholas Goche said although the Government had not been happy with the pace at which construction work was progressing, he was hopeful that the new-look airport would soon be operationalised after the contractor promised to officially hand it over to the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe on 2 November last year. At that time, Treasury had released an additional $2 million to the project.
Cde Goche made it clear that there were squabbles between the Minister of Finance and CAAZ over some figures and that was stalling progress.
"I am not happy with the pace at which construction is happening, not that it is the fault of the contractor, but the Government. We have been failing to make funds available to complete the job. Originally, the handover was supposed to be there in May or June but it was not to be because of the battle between the Minister of Finance and CAAZ over some figures, but that has been resolved," he said.
Government had tentatively set 22 December — Unity Day — as the date of commissioning and operationalisation of the airport but that was missed as has several deadlines before then. This year it is absolutely crucial that the airport is opened and operationalised before the United Nations World Tourism Organisation general assembly slated for the resort town of Victoria Falls in August.
Zimbabwe's aviation industry has been making a slow but steady recovery with connectivity improving significantly as evidenced by the re-entry of such airlines as Emirates, KLM and LAM into the market while others such as Air Botswana, Air Namibia and South African Express have expanded their routes in the country.
JMN Airport currently services a daily flight to Johannesburg run by South African Airways while on the domestic front, Air Zimbabwe runs a service to Harare via Victoria Falls on selected days. Government can re-coup some of the $25 million it has so far sunk into the JMN project if the airport increases the number of flights it receives particularly from international destinations.
On the Victoria Falls project, we commend the progress that is taking place there after state of the art earth-moving equipment arrived in the resort town from China recently.
The project entails construction of a 4 000 metre runway, a control tower, new terminal building, inside road network, car park as well as rehabilitation of the present runway. Although the project is not expected to be complete before the general assembly scheduled for 24-29 August, it will undoubtedly leave a lasting legacy for the resort town and its tourism sector.
We also feel the upgrading of the country's airports should be done in tandem with spirited efforts to revive the national airline, Air Zimbabwe.
The national carrier should be adequately capacitated to compete on an equal footing with other airlines which have returned to the country's skies.
It would be futile to have world class airports which would be only benefiting foreign airlines while ours continues to totter on the brink of collapse.