China Marches Ahead

a terminal at Urumqi Diwopu International Airport.
China is spending US$6.1 billion to build runways and a terminal at Urumqi Diwopu International Airport.

China Marches Ahead

China is always expanding an airport somewhere. The economy keeps growing and the country’s civil aviation market already ranks as world No. 2 after the United States. But the latest commitment won’t touch commercial hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Ralph Jennings explains.

In November, the Chinese government’s National Development and Reform Commission approved a US$6.1 billion airport expansion in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in relatively poor northwestern China. That funding will build two runways and a terminal on 500,000 square metres at the Urumqi Diwopu International Airport. The expanded airport will be able to handle 63 million passengers and 750,000 tonnes of freight by 2030.

Urumqi’s expansion, coupled with all-new airports in more remote parts of Xinjiang, will stimulate domestic tourism and economic development in a region that lags the pro-business transport infrastructure of eastern China, aviation analysts say. Capital inflows might also ease periodic unrest among ethnic Uighurs. The Central Asian natives of Xinjiang sometimes resent China’s annexation of the land 70 years ago.

“Some of these airports are one of the only ways to open these areas to economic development,” said Jeffrey Lowe, managing director of Asian Sky Group, an aviation services firm in Hong Kong. “Where some of these regions are not mainstream mainland China, they’re places where government is trying help the locals.”

Airports matter, particularly to Xinjiang, not because the region covers 1.6 million square kilometres but because of size and topography, travel is tough without planes. Steep snowcaps fill the north, while deserts dominate much of the south. Xinjiang is landlocked and the high-speed railway lines of eastern China have not reached it. The Chinese aviation authority operates 21 airports in the region now.

Officials in Beijing hope to develop the Xinjiang economy as a way of easing on-again, off-again political unrest. As many as 1 million potentially restive Uighurs and other Muslims may have been detained in Xinjiang last year for so-called “re-education”, international media reported in August 2018. China has muted dissent elsewhere by raising people’s income levels.

Xinjiang is rich in fossil fuels and minerals but has one of China’s smallest local-level GDPs. It also sits on China’s Belt-and-Road corridor through Central Asia into Europe. The six-year-old Belt-and-Road initiative calls for opening foreign trade routes by helping other countries build infrastructure, in turn giving Chinese contractors work outside the competitive domestic market.

Tourism is already on the move. Xinjiang received a record high 107 million tourists in 2017, up 32.4 percent year-on-year, official figures showed. For Chinese travellers, Xinjiang represents an “unbeaten path” that’s just “outside their back door,” Lowe added. A flight from Beijing to Urumqi takes about four hours. The Urumqi airport received 21.5 million passengers in 2017, up from just under 15.4 million in 2013, according to Airports Council International data. Cargo volumes changed little over the period. Chinese airports overall logged a record high of about 100,000 flights in 2018, state-run China Daily says.

Xinjiang struggles to attract foreign tourists because of its distance from more commonly visited parts of China, the risk of political unrest and fear of Muslim extremists.

Urumqi Airlines, a five-year-old joint budget carrier owned mostly by China-based Hainan Airlines, is leading flight growth in Urumqi in terms of capacity and destinations, said John Grant, director of JG Aviation Consultants in the United Kingdom. It flies, for example, to the African nation Burundi. Capacity to and from Urumqi has grown about 40 percent in the past five years, Grant added.

“Much of that increased activity is related to the oil, gas and mineral extraction industries and of course the strategic position of the region in the longer term is extremely valuable,” Grant said. “This is a really interesting market where the recent levels of growth have potential to expand rapidly in the coming years.”

Elsewhere in Xinjiang, a military-backed organisation opened the region’s 21st airport in December, linking Urumqi with the remote agricultural city Tumxuk. In March, an airport opened in Ruoqiang county, a tourist destination, along with a China Southern Airlines route from there to Urumqi, Xinhua reported. The Ruoqiang airport expects 120,000 passengers by next year.

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