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Sunday Oct 10, 2010

Sky's the limit for new Karoo airport

Huge economic spin-offs are envisioned for Beaufort West as negotiations for the revitalisation of the town's small privately owned airport enter their final stages.

The development of the airport could play a major role in opening up the Karoo as a tourist and business destination while playing a secondary role to the country's main airports, linking all the smaller airports and SANparks.

Senior national government officials, Western Cape, and Northern Cape MECs, including Robin Carlisle and Alan Winde, as well as roleplayers in the aviation and tourism industry, are supporting the extensive investment.

The project is also enjoying foreign support from international tour operators and a Dutch consultancy called PUM, which is finalising the business plan.

The first aircraft landed at Beaufort West airport in 1920 and the airport was used in World War II as a diversion airport for Allied forces to refuel bombers.

It was the main airport for the region before George International Airport was built.

Dr Bambie Heiberg, a former Springbok athlete turned entrepreneur and businesswoman, is the driving force behind the project.

Her goal is to establish Beaufort West, just 5km from from the entrance to the Karoo National Park, as a tourist and economic gateway to the Karoo through the Karoo Gateway Airport.

It is hoped that the project will have a "hub-and-spoke" effect throughout the region and turn it into a sought-after "green tourist destination".

"It is known throughout the world that the development of an airport forms the catalyst for socio-economic upliftment, ongoing education and skills-training, resulting in sustainable job-creation encompassing all economic sectors," Heiberg said.

Heiberg took over the small airport, formerly owned by South African Airways, from another private owner about three years ago.

Since then air traffic has increased by 200 percent. In the past few weeks landing lights have been installed, and for the first time in years aircraft can land at night. This initiative was driven by the South African Red Cross Emergency Services.

Until now the Karoo Gateway Airport has been used for private, business and commercial flights, and increasingly for flying schools doing long-distance training.

Heiberg said the SA Air Force, police and national emergency services like the Red Cross, frequently use the airport.

"We are also hosting fly-ins, which everybody enjoys enormously and our pilots already call the Karoo Gateway Airport their home-away-from-home," she said.

"Huge doors are about to open up between South Africa and its African neighbours, especially in tourism, IT and other commercial fields and an important part of this development is to be geared towards a specialised IT/industrial/distribution/warehousing hub with a free trade zone."

Heiberg is making it a priority to re-instate the airport as a strategic and central link in a new north-south corridor into Africa.

"Links between the people of Africa, whether they are economic, business related or cultural, are becoming increasingly close and most of the foreigners visiting South Africa every year come from the rest of Africa."

She said aviation operators are showing keen interest and have already pledged their support to bring in scheduled flights once the runways are tarred.

"Eleven airport managers and chartered flight operators positively voiced their support for the Karoo Gateway Airport Development Programme, and Cape Town and George in particular could be using Beaufort West as a diversion and emergency standby airport, once it is upgraded and fully functional."

She said 70 local and international tour operators interviewed during the World Trade Market held in London last year and the 2010 Tourism Indaba, had shown keen interest in the Karoo as a new eco tourism destination.

Other developments she is looking at include:

  • Construction of a green, multi-functional conference and training centre.

  • Development of "an enormous call centre" at the airport. "We have been talking to an overseas company to build a whole new IT 'silicon valley' and cellphone base on site."

  • The building of an aviation flight and training centre. "The weather is perfect, with roughly 300 days a year of sunshine, clear skies and no airspace restrictions."

    She added: "My vision is to uplift the local community, build self esteem and hope through skills-training and sustainable job creation in this almost forgotten and beautiful jewel of our beloved country, the Karoo where - so to speak - nothing is everything."

    Truman Prince, the newly elected deputy mayor of Beaufort West, said he supported any development that would lead to the upliftment and improvement of the Karoo region.

    "Beaufort West can become an economic hub if the airport is upgraded and revitalised."

    Calvyn Gilfillan, CEO of Cape Town Routes Unlimited, said the airport would make a world of difference to the area.

    "What is lacking in the Karoo is a central airport that will help stimulate regional growth in the area.

    "It will also unlock the region's broad economic potential," he said.

    Gilfillan said an added bonus would be that an airport would take some of the traffic pressure off the N1 highway.

    Saturday Argus

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