FEATURE: Aerotropolis pass a major step in regional hub plan

By Benjamin Yeh  /  AFP, TAIPEI

Tue, Mar 04, 2014 - Page 3

Taiwan’s ambitions to become a regional air hub finally look set to take off with approval for a mega aerotropolis to cash in on improving ties with China and the rise of budget airlines in the region.

The ambitious plan to transform the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport into a regional aviation center is tipped to attract more than US$16 billion in investment for the nation’s biggest infrastructure project in more than three decades.

Covering nearly 7,000 hectares, the aerotropolis will include a free-trade zone, a third terminal at the airport and an industrial park to house goods-distribution and aviation-related industries. First mooted in the booming 1990s by the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government, the project stalled after elections in 2000 when the Democratic Progressive Party ended the KMT’s 51-year grip on power.

With the KMT now back in power and the economy faltering, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) revived the project during his 2008 re-election campaign.

Since then, government agencies have been working out the details of the mammoth undertaking that could generate more than 200,000 jobs.

The project is now set to take off from the drawing board after the Ministry of the Interior recently gave the nod to its urban development plans.

“The approval of the urban development plans marks a major step forward in the development of the Taoyuan aerotropolis project,” Taoyuan County Commissioner John Wu (吳志揚) told a news conference in Taipei last month.

“From now on, the project will get off from the paperwork stage,” he said.

Wu estimated that within the next 15 years the government and private sector could pour up to NT$500 billion (US$16.5 billion) into the project, the biggest national infrastructure plan since the late 1970s.

Up to 260,000 jobs would be created by the project, which he said “if properly carried out, could help the economy get up and running again.”

Critics and the opposition say the project is intended to help sway voters for mayoral elections in November and the faltering economy has been the biggest source of mounting complaints against the Ma administration.

Once one of Asia’s most dynamic economies, Taiwan grew just 1.48 percent in 2011, 2.11 percent in 2012 and is forecast to rise 2.82 percent this year.

Despite the economic gloom, Taiwan has enjoyed a dramatic rise in tourist arrivals, due largely to improving ties with China over the past few years.

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport had its original terminal renovated last year. A third runway is scheduled for completion by 2020, 10 years earlier than originally scheduled.

The airport is forecast to see its annual cargo handling capacity nearly triple to 4.5 million tonnes by 2030, up from 1.7 million tonnes last year, and passenger capacity double to 60 million visits from now.

“The airport’s passenger load has seen double-digit growth in the past two years. This definitely had something to do with the improvement of cross-strait ties and direct flight links,” said Wen Yung-sung (溫永松), spokesman for the Taoyuan Airport Corp, the firm in charge of the airport’s management and development.

The rise of budget airlines in the region has also contributed to the influx of tourists, helping to bring in lots of young travelers from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan, he said.

Foreign tourists made more than 8 million visits last year, up from 3.84 million visits in 2008, according to figures from the Tourism Bureau.

A record 2.85 million Chinese visited last year, up 10 percent from 2012, four years after a decades-old ban on Chinese tourists was lifted.

Despite the rosy picture painted by the authorities, opponents have cast a shadow over the project, which requires the compulsory purchase of more than 3,000 hectares of land for infrastructure and other urban design purposes.

“We doubt the local government has the ability to execute the biggest-ever zone expropriation plan in Taiwan,” Hsu Po-jen (許博任)of the Taiwan Rural Front said, as many of the residents to be affected have pledged to stop the plan.

About 8,000 households or 30,000 people would be displaced, he said.

However, officials say they are handling the problem and that the bold aviation plan will go ahead.

“We’ve increased staff to handle the thorny zone expropriation issues and stepped up communication with the opponents,” said Huang Sui-peng from the county government. “We believe the [opposition] noise can be reduced and we’re optimistic about the progress of the project.”