Macau's plans get off the ground: The Chinese are backing a new airport that will compete with Hong Kong. Robin Mead reports

AS Hong Kong's new Governor, Chris Patten, struggles to reach agreement with China over the colony's proposed Chek Lap Kok airport, and who is going to pick up the dollars 6bn ( pounds 3.1bn) bill, the Chinese are quietly going ahead with plans that could lead to an aerial traffic jam within the next two or three years.

The only gateways to the region are Hong Kong's crowded Kai Tak international airport, and the mainland airport at nearby Guangzhou, formerly Canton. Last week an international consortium including the UK construction firm Costain won the dollars 1.2bn contract to prepare the site at Chek Lap Kok.

But two other new, international airports have joined the race to end Hong Kong's virtual monopoly over passenger and cargo flights to the region. And by the time the Chinese take over the running of Hong Kong in 1997 both are likely to be in operation.

One of the new airports is based within the rapidly growing special economic region that the Chinese have created at Shenzhen next to Hong Kong.

But the leader in the race is the tiny Portuguese colony of Macau, just 40 miles from Hong Kong. After centuries of virtual isolation, Macau - which makes its living from gambling - is building a pounds 465m international airport on a vast tract of reclaimed land adjoining the island of Taipa, in the middle of the Pearl River delta.

The mainland Chinese are enthusiastic supporters of the project - and have joined the consortium of investors who are financing the new airport and who will run it for a minimum of 25 years. This meeting of communist cash and capitalist realities is made even more remarkable by the fact that Macau's wealthy casino owners have also been pouring money into the project.

Macau airport is on schedule for a 1995 opening. It expects to handle 2.25 million passengers in its first full year of operation, rising to eight million within 15 years.

For a trio of islands with a population of less than 500,000, these are extraordinary figures. But the airport director, Jorge Ferreira Guimaraes, says: 'The market is there, the investors are there - and traffic forecasts make the project a viable one.'

Mr Guimaraes believes that increasing operating costs at Kai Tak, coupled with a soaring demand for landing and take-off slots that even the projected Chek Lap Kok airport may not be able to meet, make the Macau development a natural one. He also points to a probable heavy increase in intra-Chinese travel, and in cargo flights, as Chinese plans for the region become reality.

And he dismisses fears that the proliferation of airports will lead to air traffic control problems and turn the special economic zones into danger zones. 'We will be in the same position as Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton,' he says. 'They don't have problems, so why should we?'

Macau - too tiny to be self-supporting - has enjoyed a specially close relationship with China since 1987, when Portugal and the Chinese signed a Joint Declaration agreeing that Macau would be returned to China in 1999, two years after Hong Kong. The agreement, which will make Macau a special economic region of China but with considerable autonomy, created a mood of confidence that has already led to heavy mainland Chinese investment in Macau's tourism infrastructure. About 1,000 mainland Chinese are helping to build the airport, and this will rise to 1,500 as the work speeds up.

With air traffic in the Asia-Pacific region rising at 9 per cent a year, compared with 6 per cent in Europe, the West's airlines have taken a keen interest in the Macau project and are scrambling to get in on the act.

'We have had an approach from Virgin,' says Mr Guimaraes, 'and the American airline, United, has already said that it is interested in flying to Macau. Five other major European airlines are also interested.'

To stop all the business from going overseas, Macau's next step is likely to be the formation of its own international airline: and plans for Air Macau are thought to be well advanced. The Chinese, it seems, may be willing to put money into that, too.

Mr Guimaraes is not surprised. 'The new airport makes sense because it will enable us to maintain our trading links with China - and because it will ensure our future.'

(Photograph omitted)

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