Travel Agent / December 15, 2005
By Larry Luxner
QUITO — An ambitious project to relocate one of Ecuador's two major international airports and completely renovate the other one will no doubt play a key role in the country's efforts to attract at least one million tourists a year by 2007.
In September, financing was approved for a $420 million project to replace Quito's long-suffering Mariscal Sucre International Airport, which is hemmed in on all sides by urban development and cannot grow.
"We have a lot of demand for commercial and cargo traffic, and we no longer have space to enlarge the airport," said Gema Novoa, a spokeswoman for Corporación Quiport S.A., which is overseeing the project. "So there's really a necessity to build a new one that's not as dangerous, because we're right in the middle of the city."
Novoa noted that four fatal air accidents have occurred at Quito's airport in the last 15 years, resulting in at least 100 casualties.
The new airport will be built 18 kilometers east of Quito, on a 1,500-hectare tract of land (the current airport sits on only 150 hectares). The project, a 35-year concession, is a joint venture between Brazil's Andrade Gutierrez (with a 48% share), local construction firm AECON (with 45%), minority partners ADS of Toronto and Houston Airport System Development Corp. Their investment is expected to begin paying off around 2015.
The new airport will boast a 3,800-meter runway and will be able to handle 4.5 million passengers a year by 2010, 5.5 million by 2020 and 7.5 million by 2030. By comparison, the current airport can only handlse 2.8 million passengers annually. The Municipality of Quito has already built a 4-km-long access highway that will connect a nearby road to the new passenger terminal.
Arriving passengers will also like the new airport because it'll be situated at 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) above sea level, considerably more comfortable than Quito's current airport, whose altitude of 2,808 meters (9,213 feet) is so high that signs in English and Spanish advise arriving passengers to walk slowly in order to avoid the unpleasant effects of altitude sickness.
The new airport will also have double and possibly triple the current area for duty-free shopping, said Novoa, though specific details on those concessions haven't been released yet and aren't likely to be for some time.
The current duty-free operator at Quito's airport is Polival Duty Free, a wholly owned affiliate of Waked International S.A. based in Panama.
Currently, Polival operates three stores at Quito airport under the brand name La Riviera. The largest of them measures 180 square meters, has two entrances and boasts an extensive product mix including liquors, electronics, tobacco and accessories.
Marianella Baida, general manager of Polival Duty Free, said only 600,000 of the 2.8 million passengers who transit Quito's airport are flying internationally. And unfortunately for Polival, 60% of the departing passengers are poor Ecuadorian emigrants on their way to better lives in Spain, Italy or the United States.
"These people don't buy anything in duty-free stores," she said. "They have everything they need in their baggage."
As a result, only 3-4% of departing passengers ever set foot in Baida's lavishly decorated stores, and only half of them make purchases — most of them Colombians, Americans and Europeans.
Low penetration isn't Baida's only problem; other hassles include a proliferation of counterfeit U.S. currency — particularly $20 and $100 bills — a result of Ecuador's recent adoption of the U.S. dollar to replace its worthless sucre.
One of the most popular souvenirs at Quito airport is Espiritu del Ecuador, a tropical fruit-flavored liqueur that is sold in glass and ceramic decanters shaped exactly like the Mitad del Mundo monument — a popular tourist attraction that marks the spot where the Equator crosses the Pan-American Highway.
Just as Quito is getting a new airport, Guayaquil, the country's financial and commercial capital, won't be far behind. Terminal Aereo Guayaquil S.A. (TAGSA) has a 15-year concession to build a new international and domestic passenger terminal. TAGSA is 60% owned by Aeropuertos Argentina 2000 and 40% by Grupo Deller, a local construction firm.
"The globalized world demands that we have airport infrastructure that meets the challenges presented by trends in tourism and commerce," recently stated Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot, one of Ecuador's most prominent politicians.
As such, TAGSA is building a new 30,000-square-meter terminal that'll be able to handle up to 3 million passengers a year, compared to the current terminal which covers 10,000 square meters. The $70 million project also envisions a 6,000-square-meter cargo terminal and a 31-meter-high control tower. Once construction is finished in July 2006, the existing passenger terminal will be converted to an exhibition center, with Guayaquil's FITE 2007 tourism fair slated to be one of the first international events to be held there.
Originally, the new terminal was going to be utilized only for overseas arrivals and departures, leaving domestic flights in the existing terminal. But Nicolas Romero, manager of the Guayaquil Airport Authority (AAG), said the agency changed its mind partly so that the new convention center could be buitl as soon as possible.
Romero conceded that an entirely new airport for Guayaquil might have been a better choice, though — unlike the case in Quito — financing was hard to come by. In any event, Guayaquil's new passenger terminal should cover air transport needs in the area for the next 15 years.
DF Ecuador S.A. holds a 15-year concession for duty-free operations in Guayaquil, having won the license in October 2004, according to manager Ricardo Cadena.
At present, 100% of all passnegers enter through Cadena's 650-square-meter shop in their way to the departure gates; because of the design at Guayaquil, they have no choice. Thirteen percent of them buy sonmething, spending an average $44.00 — four times the average ticket at Quito.
"Our expectation was exactly 13%, and we're already there," said Cadena, estimating that 415,000 passengers will have flown out of Guayaquil in 2005, up 14% from 2004 figures.
Broken down by origin, 37% of all international passengers flying out of Guayaquil are Ecuadorians, followed by Americans (19%), Colombians (7%), Peruvians (5%), Spaniards (5%), Chileans (5%) and Europeans (5%).
The Quito and Guayaquil airport projects are the latest in a series of massive infrastructure efforts aimed at improving daily life in Ecuador and luring tourism and overseas investment.
One project, the $360 million Via del Sol superhighway, will cut travel time between Quito and Guayaquil to only four hours. In Guayaquil, the recently completed Malecón 2000 project involved the rehabilitation of Guayaquil's once-seedy waterfront with shops, a beautiful pedestrian walkway and impressive public works of art.
Part of that project centers on Las Penas, a restored neighborhood of colorful houses clinging to Cerro Santa Ana, a hill overlooking the city of 2 million.
"The mayor is working to fix the city's problems in order to bring more tourism to Guayaquil," says Cadena. "Guayaquil has improved its reputation with Malecón 2000, and he's now fixing the roads. He's also working to reduce crime. The tourist who comes to Guayaquil now will be pleasantly surprised."
In Quito, partially thanks to a global rise in oil prices, which has been a big boon to this oil-exporting country, a new cable car to the top of a 4,100-meter mountain peak opened four months ago, and a major renovation is planned for Ecuador's most famous landmark, the Mitad del Mundo.
The 50-year-old concrete globe and painted yellow line marking latitude 0 degrees, where the Northern Hemisphere meets the Southern, is visited by some 400,000 tourists a year.