Cox’s Bazar Airport to get an international terminal and extended runway. But will it translate into more arrivals at ‘the world’s longest uninterrupted natural beach’?

Bangladesh’s Cabinet is reported to have approved a proposal to develop an international passenger terminal at Cox’s Bazar Airport, part a larger project to develop Cox’s Bazar into Bangladesh’s fourth international airport. This (terminal) project will require investment of BDT2.8 billion (USD33.2 million) and is expected to be completed within 20 months. The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) also plans to develop a new apron at the airport with capacity for up to 10 wide body aircraft.


Summary:

  • Cox’s Bazar Airport is being extended with a new international terminal building in order to accommodate international visitors;
  • The Bangladesh city is home to the world’s longest beach and welcomes millions of domestic tourist each year;
  • New international terminal part of planned BDT2.8 billion (USD33.2 million) investment to position Cox’s Bazar as Bangladesh’s fourth international airport;
  • Growing international demand is a clear target but will be dependent on the supply of air service and the attractiveness of the resort.

Cox’s Bazar, situated 150 km (95 miles) south of the industrial city of Chittagong, and one of the few Colonial era place names remaining in the Indian subcontinent, is the biggest tourist destination in Bangladesh, with an unbroken beach spanning 120 km (75 miles).

It draws millions of domestic visitors each year but rather less from abroad. Foreign tourists tend not to be the kind you’d find at Puerto Banus, Bali or Acapulco; rather they are typically independent world travellers who don’t mind “roughing it a bit”. Attacks on tourists aren’t unknown but security has been improved with the advent of a Tourist Police division five years ago.

MAP – Cox’s Bazar is situated south of the industrial city of Chittagong and Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, the main international gateway into the countrySource: GoogleMaps

And the tourist infrastructure is improving. There are a large number of hotels, guest houses and motels in the city and coastal region. Many people there are involved in hospitality and customer service orientated businesses. The number of high-end hotels in the city was as low as two or three until five years ago, but today there are many more. Only a few international hotel chains now operate in the city, but others are planning to build hotels here.

As with any resort or location that is intent on building international business, both quantity and quality of ground services are paramount and particularly so when the “resort” is so extensive. ‘Quality’ includes medical services on demand.

There has been a complication since 2017, with the advent of the Kutupalong refugee camp for the Rohingya people forced from or escaping from Myanmar. The camp is situated close to Cox’s Bazar. Few people will be attracted to a beach resort by the presence of the world’s largest refugee camp.

The lack of awareness of the authorities of the tourism product is underlined by the fact that the Bangladesh Tourism Board only publishes international arrival and foreign exchange earnings up to 2009. An entire decade is missing. Those statistics show that the total number of foreign visitors for all purposes (business, leisure, study, religious etc), was 199,211 in 2000, rising to 267,107 in 2009 (+34%). Between those years though growth varied widely from +61.65% to -42.84% (2008/2009) with little consistency between any two sets of years.

Foreign exchange earnings were USD31.4 million in 2001 and USD65.8 million in 2009 (+109%). The discrepancy with the tourist numbers can perhaps be explained by the increase in higher standard hotels.

Nevertheless, these statistics, or the lack of them, will prompt few international tour operators to put Cox’s Bazar on their ‘must add to product’ list. There will always be small independent ones who will chance it though, along with the independent travellers who don’t use tour operators at all.

Cox’s Bazar Airport is publicly owned and is operated by the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh. Currently it is connected only to Dhaka and Chittagong; there are no other domestic, or any international, services. Nevertheless it is growing rapidly. In 2012 there were just 84,452 seats on offer. So far in 2018 there are 511,246.

CHART – Scheduled system capacity at Cox’s Bazar Airport has jumped five fold since 2012 with four airlines currently splitting the seat count roughly evenlySource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 11-Jun-2018)

That capacity is, again, roughly split between full service and regional/commuter carriers. There are no LCCs at Cox’s Bazar but then there are no Bangladeshi LCCs anyway. The very low impact of the genre on Bangladeshi aviation generally is highlighted in this chart. (In 2018 the entirety of budget airline seats is indicated by the tiny blue square).

CHART – While international LCCs serve Bangladesh they account for only a tiny share of annual capacitySource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG

In total there are just five international LCCs serving Bangladesh – Air Arabia (Sharjah, UAE); Air Asia (various); flydubai (UAE); Scoot (Singapore); and SpiceJet (India). It is from these sources that the first international services to Cox’s Bazar are likely to arise, if at all. The runway is only 2070 m x 38 m so talk of “wide body aircraft” may seem a little premature but it is being extended to close to 3000 m in work that is expected to be completed by the end of 2018.

In summary, Cox’s Bazar is at a turning point. The facilities will soon be in place for it to receive international passengers but will the airlines that will carry them come and if they do, does the resort have the right image to attract and retain those passengers? Only time will tell!