TIRANA, Albania — Albania's government on Friday selected a Swiss-based corporation to build a 104-million-euro ($125 million) new international airport near the southwestern town of Vlore in an effort to promote tourism and economic development.
The Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy said the Lugano-based Mabco Constructions corporation would pay the airport construction costs and receive a 35-year concession to operate it. The first part of construction, which is expected to start later this year, will last 36 months.
Infrastructure Minister Belinda Balluku acknowledged that the aviation industry "has been the most negatively impacted industry due to the pandemic." But she added that the government believes that "during this time of recovery we have the possibility to build our airports network."
A main funder of the consortium is Behgjet Pacolli, an ethnic Albanian businessman from neighboring Kosovo.
Conservation groups had asked the government to scrap the project, saying it would seriously damage the country's western wetlands in the protected area of Vjose-Narta.
The Vlora International airport will be located 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of the capital Tirana, close to the Narta Lagoon and the Vjosa River. It will have a 3.2-kilometer (2-mile) runway and is planned to be able to handle up to two million passengers a year.
It will also offer aircraft maintenance services, which are not currently available in the tiny Balkan country.
Albania has only one international airport, the Tirana International Airport Mother Teresa near the capital. Another smaller airport in northeastern Kukes is expected to become operational in a few weeks. After Vlora, Tirana plans building another airport in southernmost Saranda.
"With four airports Albania (will move) to another level of social and economic development," said Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Albania expects to start full membership negotiations with the European Union, likely this year.
Tourism in Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, has gained importance in recent years and now accounts for 8.5% of GDP. The number of foreign tourists doubled between 2013 and 2019, to 6.4 million.
But an earthquake in 2019 and the virus pandemic impact have more than halved arrivals.