THE wheels of the big Emirates Airlines plane touch the tarred surface of the runway with a soft bump as its excited passengers clap their hands thankfully. After completing the usual post-landing turns and twists, the pilots finally coax the gleaming bird to a stop on the apron of Harry Mwaaanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingstone, Zambias tourist capital.
The passengers are mostly tourists on their way to the countless hotels, lodges and other resorts dotted around Livingstone to begin their adventure tour, with the mighty Victoria Falls topping their itineraries.
The airport is increasingly becoming an important gateway to Zambias bourgeoning tourism industry following President Satas declaration of Livingstone as the countrys tourist capital last year, although it desperately needs a make-over.
No country can expect to reap tangible benefits from tourism if it does not have decent airports with internationally acceptable standards. And it is with this truism in mind that Zambia and other African countries met in Livingstone recently to discuss the development of airport infrastructure from August 27 to 29.
The three-day 21st Airports Council International-Africa regional conference was held under the theme Overcoming the Challenges of Airports Development in Africa in the comforts of the serene Zambezi Sun International Hotel in the Mosi-O-Tunya National Park.
National Airports Corporation Limited (NACL) managing director Robinson Misitala, whose company ably hosted the conference, had every reason to brag. He thanked the ACI-Africa regional office for approving Zambia, and Livingstone in particular, as the venue for this years annual conference.
Mr Misitala seized the opportunity to show off Zambias ambitious multibillion Kwacha airports expansion programme with Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport serving as the flagship project.
The indaba attracted more than 250 high-level delegates from six continents and over 50 countries, including government officials, aviation executives and experts, representatives of international aviation-related agencies, airport managers and partners.
Notable among the delegates were ACI-World director general Angela Gittens, acting ACI-Africa president Pascal Komla and his secretary general Ali Tounsi.
As African countries struggle to cope with the boom in air travel thanks to a rejuvenated tourism industry, the conference could not have come at a better time. The continent has remained largely unscathed by the global financial tsunami that has left the hitherto invincible economies of many a European country on life support.
Africa has recorded a steady growth in air passenger traffic in the last decade. For example,Zambias Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport, which was built in 1952, registered an increase from 8,963 passengers in 2000 to an impressive 203,803 in 2011, according to NACL.
But these gains are being threatened by incapacity resulting from obsolete infrastructure, understaffing and inadequate investment. Minister of Transport, Works, Supply and Communication Christopher Yaluma put this reality check in perspective when he officially opened the conference.
After seeing the statistics [presented by Ms Gittens], I am happy to note that the future of airports in Africa looks bright, Mr Yaluma said.
Investment in Africa has gone up to 15 percent in the last five years. This is according to the United Nations Development Programme, he said.
The ACI-Africa office gives credence to his optimism with some encouraging statistics on its website.
In 2009, airports worldwide welcomed 4.8 billion arriving and departing passengers and handled 79.8 million metric tonnes of cargo and 74.1 million movements. ACI regular members represent over 96 per cent of the worlds passenger traffic , the organisation says.
However, Mr Yaluma struck a sobering chord in the minds of the delegates when he noted that although the growth in the industry seems remarkable, placing Africa among the fastest growing continents, there is need to hasten infrastructure development to remain afloat and keep pace with global developments.
Fortunately, Zambia has refused to sit on its laurels. Government has responded to this challenge with an ambitious multitrillion Kwacha expansion programme aimed at improving infrastructure at all the countrys four international airports.
Currently, a new international terminal building is under construction at Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingstone.
We are in a hurry to improve infrastructure at all the four international airports, Mr Yaluma declared.
And it was no mere bluff. Airport manager Joseph Mumbi had earlier assured the Livingstone Tourism Investment Forum that the whole project is expected to be completed by the end of June next year in readiness for the UNWTO general assembly.
NACL public relations manager Geoffrey Chipolyonga provided more weight to the assertion.
The US$12 million facility is to be built in three phases. Phase one of the project should be completed by December 2012. Under phase one the concourse, administration wing, departure lounge and all commercial areas will have been built, Mr Chipolyonga said.
The arrivals hall, drop-off zone and walkways will come under phase two at a cost of US$5.13 million. If the artists impression of the new airport is anything to go by, it will surely stand among the best and biggest in the region once completed.
The Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, Mr Yaluma announced, will also undergo the most extensive expansion to be phased over the next few years at a cost of about US$500 million while Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe in Ndola, which is earmarked for relocation, and Mfuwe will also receive massive facelifts at a cost of about US$1.3 billion.
This will not only bring a boost to the economy but also help reduce poverty through the creation of hundreds of direct and indirect jobs.
The significance of the ACI-Africa regional conference transcended airports, airlines and passenger traffic. It was a blessing to Zambias tourism and added new impetus to the preparations for the UNWTO general assembly.
It is for this reason Mr Yaluma did not hesitate to use the occasion to coerce both local and foreign delegates to take some time off the conferences tight programme to sample some of the rich tourist attractions dotted around Zambias tourist capital.
And they gladly obliged. On the second day, the delegates fanned out around the citys precincts in their droves, viewing the Victoria Falls and enjoying sunset boat cruises on the Zambezi River.
We had a wonderful time. We went for a sunset boat cruise and saw all kinds of animals: elephants, hippos and the thieves, I mean the baboons, Patrick Omoh, a journalist from Nigeria, said.
But Zambia Tourism Board managing director Felix Chaila must have been a happier man. He said the hosting of yet another high-profile international conference was a demonstration of what an important destination Livingstone, and Zambia in general, is becoming.
This is good for us as a country. It shows you that ecotourism opens opportunities for other forms of tourism. What we are witnessing in Livingstone, which has been hosting an international conference almost on a weekly basis for a month now, is a branch of tourism called MICE, Mr Chaila said.
He was not referring to rodents, in case you are from the eastern parts of this country. MICE stands for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions, an offshoot of the traditional nature-based tourism Zambia is known for.
ACI is a not-for-profit organisation representing commercial airports worldwide, the prime purpose of which is to advance the interests of airports and promote professional excellence in airport management and operations.
ACI-Africa was established as a region of ACI-World in 1991. Its headquarters are in Casablanca, Morocco, and it represents 56 members operating over 200 airports in 47 countries.