Vanuatu tourism sector calls for quick resolution over airport contract

Vanuatu aviation officials are trying their best to keep to an April timeline for breaking ground on runway repairs. Image: Dan McGarry/Vanuatu Daily Post

By Dan McGarry in Port Vila

On the day of the arrival in Vanuatu of World Bank Vice President Victoria Kwakwa, tourism industry stakeholders are reportedly calling for a quick resolution to an apparent impasse over the selection of a contractor to perform the upgrades to the Bauerfield airport runway.

In late December, a World Bank procurement expert told bidders that she hoped to be able to announce the winning bid within a month of the tenders being unsealed. Nearly two months have passed, however, and no announcement has been made.

The Vanuatu Daily Post has received reliable reports that the crux of the delay is an impasse over the preferred contractor. Sources have confirmed that there are differing opinions about which one should win, and that price is a concern for at least one of the parties.

READ MORE: Vanuatu airport runway repairs usher in new tourism era

Most parties will not speak on the record because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations, but aviation stakeholders stated last week that they were ready to ask for high level government intervention in order to break the impasse.

Over the weekend, government representatives confirmed that they were willing to intervene in the process.

One political operative, who chose to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the affair, confirmed that a letter had been sent to a minister by tourism industry representatives, expressing concern at the economic cost of further delays.

It is widely known that several tourism operations are approaching the end of the line in terms of their ability to continue doing business at these depressed levels, and that any curbs on inflows over the upcoming peak season could spell disaster for them.

Expedited upgrade
The expedited runway upgrade bidding process had been designed with an eye to breaking ground in April, in order to ensure that any interruptions in service would not affect peak season tourist traffic.

Being able to announce completion of the runway upgrades by July might also have the effect of enticing Air New Zealand to return to scheduled service.

While arrival numbers from New Zealand are not huge, a vote of confidence from one of the most highly regarded airlines in the world would go a long way to reassuring travelers about the safety of the runway.

A completed runway upgrade might also convince Qantas to restore their code share with Air Vanuatu on their Sydney and Brisbane to Port Vila service.

Sources have confided that part of the problem stems from a lack of trust in the judgment of some parties. Vanuatu deferred to the World Bank’s choice of project manager during the emergency repair process, and later expressed regret when additional repairs were proven necessary.

Flight turned back
A Virgin Australia flight was turned back last year when additional damage was discovered on the runway, on a section that the project manager had deemed safe.

Nobody’s safety was affected because Airports Vanuatu Ltd was conducting visual inspections of the runway before every jet aircraft arrival and departure.

But the effect on the confidence of international tourism operators was palpably negative.

Parties to the negotiation have quietly accepted that the government’s position is understandable, and said that they view the Vice-President’s visit as an opportunity to “cut the knot” and move ahead with repairs to the runway.

Kwakwa is visiting the country to sign an agreement establishing a country office in Vanuatu.

She was joining at a signing ceremony yesterday by Minister of Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Jotham Napat, and Finance Minister Gaetan Pikioune.

Dan McGarry is media director of the Vanuatu Daily Post group.

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