In 1990, Maldives unveiled the second domestic airport developed by the administration of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom: Hanimaadhoo Airport. Located in the island of Hanimaadhoo in Haa Dhaalu Atoll, the airport opened with promises of easier transportation and better economy for the people of the north.
However, a look at the now ‘international’ airport, 28 years after the first aircraft landed on newly tarred runway, reveals a sorry picture of the citizens’ hopes and dreams still waiting seemingly in vain to be airborne.
The northernmost gateway of Maldives, Hanimaadhoo is an important port for both locals and visitors. Following its upgrade to an international airport in 2013, tourists bound for resorts and guesthouses in the northern atolls are flown in almost daily, while residents in the region also depend heavily on the airport, particularly those travelling to the capital city of Male'.
Yet, the ever steepening hill of inconveniences that loom over travellers is immediately apparent upon arrival. A long 200-metre walk separates the airport terminal from the jetty, unsheltered from the elements. Without a single buggy around, locals and tourists are subjected to another 60-metre walk from the jetty to the nearest set of trolleys.
On a gloomy day, there is not much to protect one’s luggage from rain across this stretch.
Enter the terminal and the sketchy services at Hanimaadhoo Airport become even more pronounced. At the check-in counter, passengers are met not with modern facilities, but simple scales to weigh their luggage, which are then transported to aircrafts via the rather primitive use of handbarrows.
The waiting room also leaves much to be desired, while passengers that rush to the restroom are resigned, uncomfortably, to several cubicles missing locks. Those in search of sustenance might be disappointed in the airport cafeteria which amounts to a typical ‘sai hotaa’ (tea room) in Maldives, and the only shop is often out of basic necessities.
Even visitors that opt for the airport lounge, which is managed by Island Aviation Services, are charged USD 10 for a short 2-hour period.
“The air conditioner in the Departure Terminal was swapped out for a ceiling-mounted unit. Then they established the Immigration Counter to begin flights to India,” stated a veteran staff, on condition of anonymity, regarding the changes brought about to convert Hanimaadhoo Airport to international standards.
“And they do a paint job every year. But other than that, nothing has been done in the name of making this an international airport."
Meanwhile, people returning home to Hanimaadhoo or visiting the island itself, further face the daunting journey from the airport to the heart of the island where the population resides, which is a 15-minute taxi ride along a deeply pot-holed lane. Come sundown, passengers have to make the trip in near darkness, the path lit only by the cab’s headlights, as it has been over eight months since the streetlights stopped working. Some have reported that the pot holes and lack of adequate lighting have also led to injuries in the past.
Despite the five years that have passed since it received international status, the only overseas operations to and from Hanimaadhoo are by Maldivian, the national carrier of Maldives. The local airline schedules two weekly flights to Trivandrum, India, which are operated only by Dash 8 aircrafts in Maldivian’s fleet.
Larger aircraft cannot be cleared to land at Hanimaadhoo, due to its small runway of only 1.2 kilometres.
While tourism in the north is on the rise, with three resorts and 10 guesthouses already operating in the region, the inadequacy of Hanimaadhoo Airport facilities is a key factor limiting the tourism sector and economic growth in the northern atolls.
Some industry veterans believe that commencing operations between Hanimaadhoo and Sri Lanka, one of the main transits for tourists en route to Maldives and locals outbound for business, could be the start of a solution. However, with Hanimaadhoo’s current limitations with regards to aircraft capacity, establishing a direct Hanimaadhoo-Colombo route remains a far-off reality.
Among these pains, locals have also raised complaints over Maldivian’s international flight times, which are scheduled for takeoff at 0100 hours. The majority of Maldivians travel to Trivandrum for medical purposes, and midnight flights are a great inconvenience for the ailing, who would reach their accommodations in India in the early hours of morning.
Clearly slapping the term ‘international’ to an airport’s name does not make it so, and the people of Haa Dhaalu and Haa Alif had watched Hanimaadhoo Airport pass its silver jubilee in a state unbecoming of its official status.
It is the airport that every government which followed the administration of Gayoom, had vowed to develop, to expand, to establish as an international airport in both service and facilities as well as in name.
It is the airport that every government has failed.
Maldivians have listened to years of talk but are yet to witness substantial action undertaken to develop the northern gateway. The previous administration had vowed, in 2016, to expand Hanimaadhoo’s runway to a length of 1.8 - 2 km. Yet, by the time then President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom was voted out in the 2018 Presidential Election, Hanimaadhoo Airport had experienced little change in the way of progress.
Most recently, the new leader of Maldives pledged to take on the neglected airport, vowing that Hanimaadhoo would see the landing of large aircrafts during his rule.
“With the development our administration will bring, international flights can land directly at Hanimaadhoo Airport,” President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih boldly pledged during his electoral campaign.
However, a look at the 2019 State Budget, which was compiled by President Solih’s government and passed by the parliament last year, shows that only MVR 1.5 million has been allocated for Hanimaadhoo Airport.
After 28 years of oversight and empty promises, the numbers laid out do not appear to bode well for Hanimaadhoo. The people, once again, are resigned to raising their voices and waiting, to see whether Hanimaadhoo International Airport does not end up as just another footnote amongst the weighty promises made by yet another government elected with the highest of hopes.