Transport hub flourishes in northern Afghanistan

21 May 2013

Transport hub flourishes in northern Afghanistan

MAZAR-E-SHARIF - Plans to turn the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif into a regional transportation hub have taken a jump forward with the opening of a new airport terminal. 

While the airport has yet to be officially opened to international travel, domestic flights have already begun at the airport, which compliments other transportation initiatives, including a rail link with Uzbekistan and three ports along the Amu Darya River.

“This won’t just be an airport, but one of Afghanistan’s most significant global gateways which will help bloom the economy through business, air cargo, tourism and industry,” said Ahmad Zia Ferozpur, a public communications advisor for the Governor of Balkh province, of which Mazar-e-Sharif is the capital. “It will be a door to the world.”

For now, the new airport is known simply as Mazar-e-Sharif airport. Plans exist, however, to rename the facility the Mawlana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi Rumi International Airport, after the celebrated 13th century poet, jurist, theologian and mystic who was born in the province, according to some sources.

The newly built terminal is nearly as large as the one at Kabul International Airport. When international airlines begin arriving, potentially in the next month, travelers using the airport will be able to take direct flights to foreign cities such Istanbul, Dubai, and New Delhi. The first international arrival will be a flight by Turkish Airlines, and authorities expect 400,000 passengers to pass through the airport this year, up from about 100,000 last year.

In the past, residents of Mazar-e-Sharif who wanted to travel abroad first had to fly or drive to the capital, Kabul, which often took up a day of travel in itself. Funding for the construction of the airport came from the governments of Germany and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Afghan Government.

The role of the United Nations in the new airport has been focused on working with the Afghan Customs Department to train customs officers. Carried out by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) since 2004, this assistance has also included the creation of the so-called Automated System for Customs Data, a computerized customs management system for trade procedures like manifests, customs declarations and financial records.

The new airport is complimented by a rail system that has a stop deliberately placed nearby to facilitate travel within the area. The rail line, opened in 2011, at a cost of $170 million with the funds mostly provided by the Asian Development Bank, runs for 75 kilometres, connecting Mazar-e-Sharif with the Uzbek city of Termiz.

Also boosting trade and transport connections is the nearby river route. In 2012, the first oil tanker to arrive in land-locked Afghanistan docked at a port along the Amu Darya River, which partly delineates the border between Afghanistan and neighbouring countries to its north. It was the first tanker to arrive in Afghanistan in 16 years and signaled the re-opening of the river as an important international trade route. Plans exist to create two more river ports in the next few years.

All these projects are part of a transportation strategy of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Programme, a partnership made up of ten countries in the region and supported by six multilateral institutions, working together to promote development through cooperation, leading to accelerated growth and poverty reduction. It aims to increase freight volumes and the profile of Mazar-e-Sharif as an important transit hub.

Planners in Balkh are excited by this goal, seeing their region as a potential focal point for the transportation of goods between Central Asia, South East Asia and Europe.

“For people in the northern region this project does not only mean a facility to ease their transport, it’s also a cornerstone to the economy of the country,” said the Chairman of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s office in Balkh, Arash Younusi.