The prospect of taking a direct flight from the sophisticated streets of London to the untamed jungles of Costa Rica s Southern Zone may be on its way to becoming a reality. Officials recently selected a site between the towns of Sierpe and Palmar Sur, off theInter-American Highway
, as the future home of the still-unnamed Southern Zone international airport.
While some hope the airport will push the area to become as internationally popular as the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where development is burgeoning and the airport needs expansion, others worry it might destroy the untouched wilds of a region known for its remoteness.
Promises of a Southern Zone airport have been made for years; however the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MOPT) finally appears to be moving forward with the plan.
The Southern Zone Development Authority (JUDESUR) has agreed to provide ¢600 million ($1.2 million) to fund part of the next step to making the airport a reality developing an airport master plan and conducting thorough soil and climatic studies.
We have seen the experience Guanacaste has had since the construction of (Daniel Oduber International) airport. Tourism there has grown greatly and campesinos are able to export their products they have direct access to international markets. This is the experience we want for the Southern Zone, explained William Pérez, executive director of JUDESUR, a semi-autonomous government institution that distributes government funds in the Southern Zone.
JUDESUR may provide additional funds to complete the three preliminary reports, or other funds can be obtained relatively easily, according to Vice-Minister of Public Works and Transport Eduardo Montero.
Funding the airport s construction is another story, however. The government does not currently have any funds for such a large infrastructure project,Montero said. The possibility remains that it could be developed through a concession, in which a private firm would construct and operate the airport for a set number of years, dividing profits with the government, before turning it over to the state. The country s main international airport, Juan Santamaría near San José, is in the process of being expanded through such a deal, but the project has proved to be hugely controversial and resulted in a three-year contract dispute that is only now being resolved (TT, Feb. 10,March 17).
JUDESUR isn t particular about either kind of financing, it just wants the project done, Pérez said. He expects the studies to take a year, and, if resources are allocated immediately, the Southern Zone could see a new airport five years later. However, such a quick turnaround doesn t seem likely because of the politics involved.
Giovanni Ramírez, manager of Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge in DrakeBay, along the Southern Zone s OsaPeninsula, hopes authorities will take their time.
This area isn t ready for such a large airport, he said. It s a rural people, and the tourism here is eco-tourism. We don t want massive tourism. Mike Stiles, owner of the 12-room Río Sierpe Lodge, agrees.
If they brought in 250 people on a flight, I m not sure where they would go. The tourism infrastructure here is well behind that kind of curve to need an international airport, he said.
This is not a Guanacaste, where they destroyed the environment 50 years ago, he added, acknowledging the Sierpe community is split on the matter.
While Pérez recognizes that the area doesn t currently have the infrastructure necessary to support such a project, he said an airport would attract companies to build infrastructure. It would also provide much needed jobs to the area of Palmar Sur, which is not a tourist attraction in itself.
The Palmar Sur site was chosen in part for its centralized location, with easy access to the Southern Zone s tourist attractions, such as CorcovadoNational Park, the Golfo Dulce and DominicalBeach.
In addition, the airport will mainly be on Agricultural Development Institute (IDA) lands, simplifying the expropriation process, Montero said. It also offers appropriate climatic and geographic conditions for flying.
While some leaders in the Southern Zone attempt to model themselves after the Guanacaste airport, the northwestern region has already outgrown it facilities.
With use of the airport, located in Guancaste s capital Liberia, growing at unprecedented levels in recent years, expansion is crucial. Growth has been so rapid that recent expansion designs have already become outdated, according to Montero.
Last year, the number of passengers who passed through the airport was approximately 350,000, compared to 194,000 in 2004 and 91,000 in 2003.
The United States Trade and Development Agency has therefore agreed to donate $300,000 for the creation of a master plan for the airport.
The plan will calculate future growth in the number of passengers and flights that use the Liberia airport and define which expansion projects should be priorities.
The master plan will become the airport s backbone, Montero said.
For example, the plan, which is expected to be complete in a year, will determine whether more jet space is necessary for private jets, if more boarding gates are needed for commercial flights and how big the terminal and commercial space should be, explained Public Works and Transport Vice-Minister Lorena López.
For regular users of the Liberia airport, this may sound like déjà vu. Last year, a contract was awarded to a three-company consortium to design a new airport terminal.
But Montero told The Tico Times that this and other previous designs use an outdated study s predictions for airport growth that were surpassed in 2004.
How can the government move forward with a design when the reality is now totally different? he asked.
Previous design plans will therefore be discarded, Montero said. New designs should not be made until the master plan is complete, he added.
However, Luis Solano, general manager of Indeca Ltd., one of the companies in the consortium awarded the design project last year, said he has heard no word that their design will not be used.
Debate has also emerged regarding whether the airport should be expanded through a private concession.