President Abdulla Yameen inaugurated Wednesday the new Dhaalu domestic airport on the south-central island of Kudahuvadhoo.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer said the government’s aim is for all inhabited islands to have access to an airport within a travel distance of 30 minutes.
“God willing, the tourism sector will contribute the most to repaying the US$1 billion debt of the Malé international airport with these newly opened [regional] airports,” he said.
At the end of the next five years, the Maldives would have 15 airports with 1.2 kilometre-long runways and six category C airports with a runway length of 1.8 kilometres, he added.
The Dhaalu airport is the largest domestic airport in the country and the only one that can accommodate private jets in addition to the 42 ATR or Dash-8 aircraft used for domestic air travel.
The government says the expansion of the Velana International Airport will increase passenger capacity fivefold to seven million passengers annually and more new regional airports will be needed when new resorts are opened in remote atolls.
The majority of tourist resorts in the Maldives are located in the central atolls or “seaplane zone” near Malé. But more resorts are now under development in far-flung atolls.
Some 1.3 million tourists visited the Maldives last year. Zameer said the target is to reach five to seven million arrivals in the next ten years.
The Dhaalu airport project was awarded to Reollo Investment by the previous government in 2013. It was developed at a cost of US$20 million with a 1,800-metre runway built on more than 62 hectares of reclaimed land.
The airport is managed by Dhaalu Airport Holdings, a subsidiary of the Reollo Investments, which financed the airport construction. The Malé-based company was awarded a nearby island for resort development as part of the airport deal.
The Kandima Maldives resort, a 20-minute boat ride from the airport, opened in May.
A few weeks after a test flight landed at the new airport on June 1, the national carrier Maldivian began scheduled flights with a one-way ticket costing MVR888 (US$58).
As domestic flights are cheaper than seaplane transfers, the airport is expected to boost tourism in the southern atoll, which includes the high-end luxury resorts Sun Aqua Vilu Reef, Angsana Velavaru and PER AQUUM Niyama.
The Spanish company Riu Hotels and Resorts is also developing two resort hotels on the islands of Kedhigandu and Maafushi near the Dhaalu airport due to open in 2018.
The Maldives now has 12 airports, including three international airports and eight domestic airports in Raa, Baa, Alif Dhaal, Thaa, Laamu, Gaaf Alif, Gaaf Dhaal and Gnaviyani atolls.