News Article

Airport project in Nepal faces setbacks due to coronavirus

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, a shortage of Chinese engineers threatens to hold up dams and other infrastructure

POKHARA, Nepal — The coronavirus epidemic threatens to delay the deadline of the construction of Pokhara Regional International Airport, the countries new gateway for international visitors.

Located west of the capital, Kathmandu, Pokhara is a tourism hotspot, particularly for the Chinese.

The $240 million initiative is a crucial project for Pokhara and Nepal as it will reduce the capital’s traffic and enable travellers to fly directly to Pokhara. It will also serve as a reserve airport for emergency landings. An additional 1 million passengers per year and 600 per hour are expected to be handled by the airport.

But the near-term outlook for the project has dimmed since the outbreak of the new coronavirus in China and surrounding countries.

62% of the 164 Chinese workers hail from Chengdu. Most of the Chinese workers finished their jobs and returned home for the Lunar New Year holiday. On Feb. 1, a total of 85 new workers were expected to join Nepal, including technical staff.

The Chinese workers are now quarantined in Sichuan before they can travel back. At the moment, around 12 are in isolation rooms. One has been released and has begun working. Just five are being sent from China after being quarantined in China for 15 days.

55% of the total work on the airport has already been completed by China CAMC Engineering. But it is unclear for now whether the project can make the deadline due to the labour shortage.

Midsize aeroplanes will fly regionally to China, India, and Southeast Asia. The airport will feature a 2,500-meter-long, 45-meter-wide runway.

Kevin Qin, the site manager, said there are four or five rooms to isolate new workers in for 14 days and they are allowed to work if no signs are found.

“We will try to bring other Chinese workers who are in Nepal’s various projects across to speed up the project,” Qin told the Nikkei Asian Review. “We will do everything in our power to finish the project on schedule.” More workers will be added to speed up the work after the virus-related delays ease, he then said.

However, Nepal seems unprepared for the outbreak. There are no labs, hospitals or doctors qualified enough to be able to handle the disease and patients. Doctors can only verify whether patients are showing symptoms.

Airport project manager Binesh Munakarmi told Nikkei: “We are still in the process of isolating the arriving Chinese workers from China and no one is allowed to meet with them. We also have made requests to the Chinese contractor to assist us in this matter.”

Ripples are spreading beyond the construction site in Lakeside Pokhara. A guard at the Rolling Stones Rock Bar said in three years he’d never seen such low occupancy, citing the coronavirus outbreak as the cause.

The president of the Paschimanchal Hotel Association Pokhara, Bikal Tulachan, told Nikkei that Chinese arrivals in Pokhara for January and February are down 30% compared to the same period in 2019.

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