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Nepal airport project faces delay due to coronavirus

Shortage of Chinese engineers threatens to hold up dams and other infrastructure

Pokhara Regional International Airport. (Courtesy of Kevin Qin)

POKHARA, Nepal -- The coronavirus outbreak threatens to push the timeline for building the Pokhara Regional International Airport, which the country sees as a new gateway for international visitors, beyond its deadline of July 2021.

Sitting west of the capital, Kathmandu, Pokhara is a tourist hub, especially for Chinese.

The $240 million effort is a key project for Pokhara and Nepal, as it will cut the traffic in the capital and travelers will be able to fly directly to Pokhara. It will also serve as a backup airport for emergency landings. The airport expects to handle around 1 million passengers a year and 600 per hour.

But the project's near-term outlook has dimmed since the outbreak of the new coronavirus in China and elsewhere.

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

Chinese workers are now quarantined before they can come. Around 12 are in isolation rooms at the moment. One is already out and has started working. Only five are being sent from China along with medical results at a time after being quarantined for 15 days in China.

China CAMC Engineering has already completed 55% of the total work on the airport. But with the labor shortage, it is unclear for now whether the project can make the deadline.

Midsize airplanes will be able to fly to Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian cities regionally. The airport will boast a 2,500-meter-long, 45-meter-wide runway.

Site manager Kevin Qin said there are four or five rooms to isolate new workers in for 14 days. If no symptoms are observed, they are allowed to work.

"We will try to bring other Chinese workers who are in Nepal's various projects to expedite the project," Qin told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We will try our best to finish the project on time." After the virus-related delays ease, more workers will be added to speed up the work, he said.

But Nepal seems unprepared for the outbreak. There are no labs, hospitals or doctors able to deal with the disease and patients. Doctors can only check whether patients show symptoms.

"We are still in the process of isolating the Chinese workers who have arrived from China, and no one is allowed to meet them," airport project manager Binesh Munakarmi told Nikkei. "We also have made requests to the Chinese contractor to assist us in this matter."

The Pokhara airport is not the only project affected by the epidemic. 

Such Chinese investments as the $54.5 million Gautam Buddha International Airport, slated to come online March 31, also face delays because technical workers have not returned from China.

Other Chinese-involved infrastructure-building in Nepal includes the Melamchi water supply project and various hydropower plants, such as the 756-megawatt Tamor Storage Hydroelectric Project.

These projects depend not only on Chinese funding, but also Chinese labor. Gautam Buddha International Airport, another airfield project being built by China's Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group, has hired 250 skilled Chinese workers and 200 Nepali workers. Nepal is short of technical workers.

In Lakeside Pokhara, ripples are spreading beyond the construction site. A guard at the Rolling Stones Rock Bar said that he had never seen such low occupancy in three years, blaming the coronavirus outbreak.

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

"Chinese tourists should have a 40% share of all guests in local hotels, but now it is only 25%," he said. "Chinese market share for these two months has been hit hard, so now the occupancy rate is only 10%. We are now looking for alternative nations to deal with this disruption. The government is also setting up health desks at various entry points. Our hotel industry has been hit, but the impact is not that severe at this moment."

"There is a psychological fear among tourists, and that is seen in the low occupancy of hotels in Pokhara," said Dilip Gurung, owner of the Hotel Haven O'Ganga. "However, one should understand that January and February is offseason, and despite the coronavirus outbreak, we've tourists coming from South Korea and other countries. Chinese tourists have canceled their bookings, but fortunately, it hasn't severely impacted our business."

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