Delayed expansion of the Diani National Airport, formerly known as Ukunda airstrip, is negatively affecting tourism in South Coast.
With several high-class hotels and one of the best beaches in Africa, Diani has become a favourite destination for local and international tourists.
Currently, the airport only handles domestic flights. Tourism players say this is a major stumbling block to the sector’s recovery efforts with international holidaymakers forced to spend long hours travelling to the South Coast.
Tourists who choose to disembark at the Moi International Airport in Mombasa grapple with congestion and ferry hitches at the Likoni Channel.
For years, tourism players have been lobbying the government to expand the airport to handle bigger airlines from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, as well as from foreign countries.
Last year the airport registered one of the fastest growth in passenger traffic, with the number of travellers passing through the facility jumping by almost half from 11,759 in 2017 to 17,348 passengers in July 2018, driven by increase in tourism activity at the Coast.
Between January and August 2019, a total of 126,018 passengers departed from the airport that mostly operates daily flights to and from Nairobi’s Wilson airport.
Airlines that fly to Ukunda have over the years increased to include Jambojet, Skyward Express, Silverstone Air, Safari link, Sax/Fly 540, Mombasa Air and Kenya School of Flying. There are also private charters that provide tourist access between the beach resorts and inland game reserves. Despite the rising number of fliers using the airport, the facility lacks a sufficient terminal building and most passengers have no place to shelter against weather elements.
Plans for the expansion of the airport began in 2015 with the relocation of Mkwakwani Primary School in Ukunda after it was determined that the two-acre school compound partly encroached on airstrip land. The government completed the construction and relocation of Mkwakwani Primary School last year which paved way for the airport expansion.
The Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) said plans are underway to construct a terminal building, a road connecting to new terminal building andfire station. The authority also plans to extend and widen the runway and taxiway, among other works, including apron and car park expansion.
KAA said Sh2 billion will be used for the upgrade and expansion including land acquisition. “Expansion of the airport will commence once a budget has been identified,” said KAA in a statement.
Diani Reef Beach Resort managing director Bobby Kamani said the region is losing out on tourism revenue which in turn affects employment and the economic growth in the region and the country at large.
“We appeal to the government to complete the expansion of the airport, the construction of the new airport terminal within the shortest time possible," he said, adding that accessibility is key not just for domestic travellers but international travellers.
Early this year, KAA installed the first civil aviation mobile air traffic control tower. The Sh150 million tower is expected to enable more efficient air traffic control at the facility including directing aircraft on the ground and those in the air, thereby preventing collisions, organising and expediting the flow of air traffic.
Leopard Beach Resort general manager Kioko Musyoki termed Diani an important tourism hub in the region which attracts celebrities and prominent international businessmen adding that the expansion will provide an opportunity for investments and growth in the region's economy. "We have had instances of guests travelling for long hours before reaching their destination and for tourism to grow steadily we need to revamp the infrastructure," he said.