An important provider
The airport is more than just an employer for hundreds of people. Tourism is central to the island nation’s economy, providing roughly a quarter of Vanuatu’s GDP and employing thousands across the country.
Handicraft vendor Josephine Fred Gideon is one of many who rely on tourism for her and her family’s livelihoods. Arranging her small stall at the Port Vila Central Market where she sells handicrafts, such as woven baskets and salu salus (patterned cloth that serves as towels, blankets and skirts), Josephine reflects on how critical tourism is for her family.
“My daughter is now a finance officer with the provincial headquarters of Tafea province in Tanna island,” Josephine says proudly. “Through this business I put her through school with further studies in the Philippines. I’m also paying for my son’s fees and he’s currently in Grade 13.”
She says that Bauerfield International Airport, the main port of entry for visitors flying in from around the world, is crucial to her business.
“Airports help to make things better, and inside Vanuatu, airports help a flow of exchange between people in the islands and the city.”
First repair; then rehabilitate
The World Bank and the government of Vanuatu were already in the early stages of negotiating an aviation investment project to upgrade Vanuatu’s international airports when, in March 2015, Cyclone Pam bore down on the country.
The Category 5 severe tropical cyclone tore through the islands, flooded airport terminals and damaged tarmacs. The embattled airports proved to be an essential, life-saving links for outside support, with military planes carrying essential supplies landing with only hand-signaling guidance from exhausted airport operators.
As the international emergency response operation ramped up, already-worn airports and tarmacs across Vanuatu were now in urgent need of repair. The Vanuatu Aviation Investment Project became a critical project for Vanuatu’s immediate future. Emergency repairs were prioritized under US$3.8 million World Bank-funded works, before attention then turned back to longer-term needs, with the major construction project beginning in earnest at Bauerfield.
Yet the rebuild ahead was no simple task.
“The asphalt was degraded and objects had damaged it, so we had to dig right to the bottom and rebuild it. This was a big job in itself, but contractors had to do it while the airport was still operating,” explained Jason Rakau, the CEO of Vanuatu Airports. “We could only work at night once flights had stopped, so we only had about five or six hours a night. And then by 7 AM every day, flights were landing on the runway again. It was a huge job.”
The World Bank’s Senior Transport Specialist and leader of the project in Port Vila, Dung Anh Hoang, says while the team involved recognized the importance of getting the emergency works completed as swiftly as possible, they never lost sight of the bigger, longer-term picture of what the project meant for Vanuatu.
“Following Cyclone Pam, we worked hard to ensure we would not only repair the damage from the disaster, but create lasting improvements that would ensure safer and more reliable air travel for Vanuatu into the future,” said Hoang.
Beyond emergency cyclone repair funding (US$3.8 million) for Bauerfield, the World Bank-funded project has also delivered safety and operational upgrades for Vanuatu’s two other key airports – Pekoa on Espiritu Santo and Whitegrass Airport on the island of Tanna.
Jimmy Tasso, the Head of Maintenance at Bauerfield International Airport looks over the new tarmac in Port Vila from an access road.