Vice President Ahmed Adeeb yesterday inaugurated the development of a domestic airport on the island of Maafaru in Noonu atoll, eight years after the project was first announced.
Speaking at a ceremony held on the island to lay foundation stones, Adeeb said Noonu atoll will become a major “tourism zone” in the future.
Adeeb said the current administration has cancelled several agreements for resort development in Noonu atoll due to lack of progress. Uninhabited islands have been leased to new companies capable of developing resorts, he added.
Several new resorts will open in Noonu atoll by the end of 2016, he continued, which would create new jobs for youth in the northern atoll.
In addition to expanding tourism, Adeeb said the development of regional airports is important to make it easier for Maldivians to travel across the country.
President Abdulla Yameen will secure re-election in 2018 with the development of regional airports, infrastructure for youth, and sports arenas, he said.
The airport project was awarded to a local company called Millennium Capital Management (MCM) in November 2013. The company was awarded an uninhabited island for resort development as well as land for building a guesthouse and an area for development of a yacht marina.
Adeeb said MCM decided to build a 1,800-meter runway instead of 1,200 meters as previously agreed upon so that private jets could land in the new airport.
Noonu atoll is located about 180 kilometers north of Malé on the southern edge of the Maldives’ northernmost geographical atoll.
Existing high-end resorts in Noonu atoll include the Velaa Private Island, The Sun Siyam Irufushi, Cheval Blanc Randheli, and Zitahli Resort and Spa.
According to local media, construction work on the airport began yesterday and MCM estimates the project will cost between US$15 to US$17 million. The airport is expected to be operational by the end of 2016.
MCM was meanwhile involved in a US$6 million corruption scandal implicating then-Tourism Minister Adeeb last year.
An audit report released in October 2014 revealed that Adeeb had arranged for the transfer of MVR77 million (US$4.9 million) from the state-owned Maldives Ports Limited (MPL) to MCM, which was to be paid back in dollars. Only US$3 million of the pledged US$5 million had been paid back as of October 2014.
MCM’s chairman Hamid Ismail is a relative of the vice president.
Adeeb insisted at the time that the MVR77 million from MPL was not embezzled or misappropriated, claiming that the government routinely converts rufiyaa into dollars through private parties.
Shortly after the audit report was published, then-Auditor General Niyaz was contentiously removed from the post.
The Maafaru airport project was first awarded to Noonu Hotels & Resorts Development in January 2008. The company was also awarded an uninhabited island for resort development in exchange for establishing a sewerage system and constructing a harbour in Maafaru.
However, the agreement was terminated under the administration of former President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan in early 2013 as construction work had not begun and the company’s Dubai-based investment partner had pulled out.
A 25-year agreement to develop and operate the Maafaru airport was signed with MCM in the final days of Waheed’s presidency.