NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Only four months after a raging fire engulfed the arrivals terminal at Kenya's main airport, Kenya's president on Tuesday broke ground on new construction that officials hope will cement the country as East Africa's transportation leader.
President Uhuru Kenyatta said the goal is to make Jomo Kenyatta International Airport one of the world's leading air terminals. The revamped airport will serve 20 million passengers a year, up from 6.5 million passengers currently. Construction on the new $635 million terminal is expected to last until 2017.
In August a small fire at the Nairobi airport swelled into a roaring inferno that destroyed the arrivals terminal. Firefighters were desperately short of equipment and crews took hours to control the flames. Kenyatta said the fire, which was caused by an electrical fault, "threatened our vision" of Nairobi's airport being the gateway to Africa.
Tourism fuels Kenya's economy. The country's safari parks and white-sand beaches beckon more than a million tourists per year, with most coming from the U.K. and the U.S.
Nairobi's airport is far bigger than any other in the region, but the cement structure is old, cramped and uncomfortable. Passengers are often made to walk across a busy tarmac to board their plane, one of the reasons the United States does not allow direct flights from Kenya.
Aly-Khan Satchu, who once ran the global trading desks in emerging markets for Credit Suisse First Boston and now runs his own financial management business in Nairobi, said Kenya must cement its position as a transportation hub by laying more infrastructure groundwork. With the new airport terminal, Kenya is making a play to be the Africa-Asia transit hub, he said.