Community leaders say the proposedinternational airport in the SouthernZone would bring more tourists andhelp the region’s struggling economy.More than a year after President AbelPacheco promised an international airport tothe people of the Southern Zone, the region isfinally seeing the first signs of the ambitiousproject.A special commission of the Civil AviationAuthority is nearing completion of a preliminarystudy to determine a location for the proposedSouthern Zone airport, according to GustavoGonzález, general coordinator of airports for CivilAviation. The new facility would be comparable insize to the Daniel Oduber International Airport inLiberia, capital of the northwest province ofGuanacaste.While officials are zeroing in on the location of theairport, how the project will be financed and when itmight be built remain up in the air.SEVERAL private companies have alreadyexpressed interest in a concession to construct aSouthern Zone airport, according to Roberto Arguedas, Vice-Minister and acting Minister ofPublic Works and Transport.González, however, maintains aSouthern Zone airport should not be builtthrough a private concession. Instead, theairport should be built, put into operationand made profitable by the government.Only then should the possibility of a concessionbe explored, he said.If the airport were to be made profitable,potential operators would be morewilling to share profits with the government,rather than if private operators haveto build it and make it profitable, Gonzálezexplained.Arguedas pointed out that acquiringgovernment funds for large infrastructureprojects has become an increasingly difficulttask for debt-burdened Costa Rica.The government is open to the idea of aprivate company constructing it through aconcession, he said.President Pacheco has discussed thepossibility of such a concession with theSpanish company AENA, according to thedaily La República.USING concessions for airport projectshas been put on the hot seat recently,as renovation of the country’s principalairport near San José, Juan Santamaría,has been on hold for more than two yearsbecause of a contract dispute between thegovernment and the airport’s private operator,Alterra Partners.Meanwhile, legislators have proposeda bill to expand the airports inLiberia and the Caribbean port city ofLimón through government-owned privatebusinesses (TT, May 13). Privatebusinesses also are interested in acquiringconcessions to renovate those airports,Arguedas said.However, he added, only requests forinformation have been made and no negotiationshave begun.Regarding the Southern Zone airport,he said. “As soon as we have a site identified,we will look for the resources.”THE preliminary study of a suitablelocation for the Southern Zone airport –requested by Pacheco last year – will narrowthe selection from five possible sitesto two, Civil Aviation’s Gonzálezexplained. More extensive studies of thetwo possible sites’ tectonics, aeronautics,soil and weather patterns will follow in thenext year, he added.The idea, he said, is to build an airportthat is accessible to the entire region andequidistant from the region’s major citiesand towns, including San Isidro de ElGeneral, on the Inter-American Highway;Golfito, on the Gulfo Dulce; Buenos Aires,near the Panama border; Puerto Jiménez,on the Osa Peninsula; and Quepos, on thecentral Pacific coast. It should also beaccessible to people on the other side ofthe border.Gonzaléz declined to specify the exactsites under study, saying, “naming namesis not a good idea because it would giveareas we are only studying false expectations.”EXPECTATIONS are already nearingdisappointment in some areas of theregion, according to Luis Centeno, presidentof the Palmar Norte-based OsaChamber of Tourism.“We are worried. Since we werepromised an airport in Finca 18 (10 minutessouth of nearby Palmar Sur) inJanuary 2004, we have not seen oneadvance,” he said.González said, however, that an internationalairport in the Southern Zone willbe a reality in the not-too-distant future.“This would allow the populations ofthe Southern Zone more rapid access toan international airport, so they don’thave to drive the four or more hours toSan José,” he said. “In addition, it wouldbring, as the President has explained,development to tourism and the economyof the area.”Arguedas agreed.“We have a real necessity because ofthe poverty and unemployment in theregion. Large projects like this can be agenerator of jobs,” he said.GONZÁLEZ emphasized the ideallocation would be a site central to theentire region. He also said all existingsmall airports have been eliminated aspossibilities: Quepos and Palmar Surbecause of their proximity to mountains,Golfito and Puerto Jiménez because oftheir relative isolation.Preliminary studies – which haveincluded site visits, flyovers and meetingswith engineers, pilots and regional authorities– will be complete in two or threemonths, and a report recommending twoideal sites for further study will bereleased. More extensive studies will takeless than one year, he estimated, adding,“From there, we will see where to gonext.”WHILE the Osa Chamber’s Centenoand other business leaders in the regionhope an international airport will become areality, they are cautious about how theproject will be put in motion.Centeno warns that haste and lack ofplanning could result in an experiencesimilar to that of the airport in Liberia,which has grown rapidly since its first regularinternational flight began arriving inDecember 2002 (TT, Dec. 6, 2002), fromthree flights a week in 2003 to 33 flights aweek now.The growth has been accompanied bya boom in hotels and residential communities.However, infrastructure, such asroads, sewage treatment plants and aqueducts,has been slow to follow in manycommunities.In addition, the Daniel Oduber airportitself, built in 1974, is in need of expansion.“I support a new airport, if and only ifthey make the preparations so that everythingworks, and project 10 years ahead,instead of just thinking in the short term,”said Guillermo Sibaja, manager of operationsof the Diuwak Hotel and BeachResort in Dominical, southwest of SanIsidro de El General.“THEY must build a large, modernairport, with all of the surrounding infrastructure– improved roads and highways;transportation from the airport to the surroundinghotels and car rentals; and nearbynecessities such as banks, informationcenters with bilingual operators,” he continued.Centeno agrees leaders in theSouthern Zone should learn fromGuanacaste.“We need excellent planning,” he said.The chamber president added theregion should take care to conserve whathe called “personalized, familiar service”with hotels offering 25-40 rooms maximumand no “mega hotels.”The Southern Zone, boasting a diversityof natural attractions and one of theworld’s most ecologically diverse protectedareas, Corcovado National Park, isknown for small ecotourism and sustainabledevelopment projects.Centeno said the airport itself shouldreflect this and be rustic and ecologicallyattractive, without big concrete structures,and should not negatively affect theregion’s ecosystems.The Osa Chamber of Commerce considersFinca 18 to be the best place forthe airport, because it is centrallylocated and the number of people livingin its immediate vicinity is limited, headded.