By Agnieszka Rakoczy
SERBIAN filmmaker Miroslav flew directly from Istanbul to northern Cyprus a week ago to meet his girlfriend, an airhostess from Doha, who arrived via Larnaca. The couple toured the island together, north and south, tasted local food and wine and met some friends.
Miroslav, an intrepid traveller with an EU passport that allowed him to move between the republic and the Turkish-occupied north, told the Sunday Mail he had been nicely surprised with his chosen “port of illegal entry”.
“I knew I was coming to a ‘non-existing’ state and expected something really bad,” he said at the unrecognised Tymbou (Ercan) airport, just before departure. “And yes, to start with, when I got off the plane and realised I had to walk from the tarmac to the passport control building, I was amused, but then I saw the rest of the place and it was way better than I had expected and had been warned of by a friend who had used the same airport in the past.”
Turkish Cypriot Ugur, who just landed back on the island from Prague, agreed with Miroslav.
“I love what they did with passport control booths and the fact that there is a proper duty free and a decent coffee shop,” said Ugur. “Finally, we have an airport I feel good about.”
Tymbou is the only civilian airport in the north, but like the ‘state’ it services, it is recognised only by Turkey. Because Tymbou is not internationally recognised as a legal point of entry, there are no direct flights to the north and aircraft have to first touch down in mainland Turkey. Despite the lack of recognition, the airport is now able to process up to three million passengers a year and has changed from a tired looking, depressing and gloomy structure into a much lighter, modern, medium-size hub.
These improvements were undertaken by the airport’s new operators, a consortium comprising two Turkish companies, Tas Yapi and Terminal Yapi (T&T), that in 2012 paid 100 mln euros into Turkish Cypriot coffers for a 25-year lease. The changes mark the beginning of a much more complex expansion, envisioned by the BOT (build-operate-transfer) contract signed by the investors.
The aim of this expansion is simple: at the end of it, in 25 years, northern Cyprus is supposed to have an ultra modern international airport with an annual handling capacity of up to ten million passengers. This would put it on par with Larnaca, the island’s biggest hub.
If a solution is found to the Cyprus problem, unrecognised Tymbou/Ercan, with its central location, will become the third legal airport on the island and a direct competitor with Larnaca for the title of the main international tourist hub.
Turkish Cypriot ‘authorities’ admit that this is their long term plan.
“Our aim is to create an international airport, just like in other countries, and ensure that people who use it travel comfortably,” said Ahmet Kasif, ‘minister of public works and transport’. “We need to give people a choice so they will be able to use an airport that will be the most convenient for them, whether it will be Ercan, Larnaca or Paphos.”
Tymbou/Ercan airport, originally built by the British during the Second World War as an RAF bomber base, has been used as the north’s only civilian airport since 1974. It underwent a face-lift some 10 years ago increasing its handling capacity from 150,000 to 800,000 passengers a year.
Since then, air traffic at the airport has been steadily increasing, reaching almost three million and causing huge queues, both at the departure as well as arrival lounge.
Changes in the airport’s current set-up have been designed to address this congestion.
“Since taking over the airport in January 2013, we have invested 10 mln euros to make it more comfortable and less congested. We have just looked at the space and thought of all the possible ways to use it better and more efficiently,” explained Serhat Ozcelik, T&T airport management and construction general manager.
“And it works. OK, we have had to spread people out a bit more and made them walk more but right now we are able to handle three million, and with some more calculations and adjustments about arrivals and departures, this could reach even five.”
“And as soon as we get a green light we will start building a new terminal,” added Ozcelik, referring to T&T’s plans to invest a further 300 million euros into expanding Tymbou/Ercan. According to the terms of its contract, the consortium has four years to increase the size of the airport from 20,000 square metres to 150,000.
The expansion plans, approved by the Turkish Cypriot ‘authorities’, include the construction of the new terminal designed by one of Turkey’s best known architects Emre Arolat, a second runway, a hotel, commercial areas, 62 check-in desks, 24 passport control points, an underground car park, plus a 756-vehicle open car park, as well as a separate parking area for 76 buses. The plan also provides for eight passenger boarding bridges and a state of the art fire hydrant systems.
According to the ‘undersecretary of transport and public works’ Suat Yeldener, “the green light” for expansion has just been switched on.
“We have finally made a decision about the location of a new runway and terminal,” he said.
“The runway will run parallel to the existing one and the new terminal will be just to the south of it, opposite the current building. Once it is all finished, the current terminal will be converted into a cargo area.”
Yeldener noted that once the expansion project is completed the consortium will be obliged to pay 47.8 per cent of its gross revenues to the Turkish Cypriot administration.
According to some Turkish Cypriot media reports, some of the new airport facilities could be constructed in an area currently under the control of Turkish forces.
It also remains unclear how much of the area designated for the construction of the new terminal consists of land belonging to Greek Cypriots.
Meanwhile, Yeldener said: “All the problems have been settled and the work on the new airport will start soon – in about three months in the worse case scenario.”