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In glistening new airport, Pakistan sees ticket to reviving the country’s prestige

A Pakistani security official walks through the new Islamabad International Airport ahead of its official opening on the outskirts of Islamabad on April 18. (Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

FATEH JHANG, Pakistan — It gleams, it glistens, it positively glows.

Pakistan’s new international airport cost more than double the original budget, and its construction was repeatedly stalled for years amid rumors of financial irregularities. It was built miles away from anything, including the capital, Islamabad, with no public transport available. Until last month, it had inadequate drinking water, and some aviation systems still needed tests, postponing its inauguration yet again. 

None of that seemed to matter this past week, when the mammoth, ultramodern, $1 billion facility finally opened in rural Punjab province. The first arriving flight from Karachi touched down Tuesday morning, under an arc of spray from twin firetrucks, and the pilot waved the national flag from the cockpit.

On Thursday, families waiting for flights oohed and aahed at the vast marble floors and glass walls and took selfies in a landscaped picnic park. Plane crews shook hands with baggage managers. Arriving passengers grinned at glitches, such as being left mistakenly outside a locked terminal door, that would normally have had them fuming. 

“This is so beautiful and new. It’s like a dream — no pollution, so much space,” marveled Abdul Rahim, 40, a United Nations employee who had just arrived on a flight from Kabul that would previously have landed at the small, aging terminal in Rawalpindi that served the capital area for decades. 

“It will be good for repairing Pakistan’s image,” he predicted.

Pakistan, a vast but impoverished country, has long been isolated abroad, considered to be a dangerous haven for Islamist insurgents and starved for positive recognition. Its few bragging points included a 170-mile highway and the testing of a nuclear device, popularly known here as the “Islamic bomb” but greeted far less kindly by the world community.

Now, virtually everyone is hoping that the impressive new Islamabad International Airport, a four-level complex with a smorgasbord of consumer amenities and high-tech passenger services, will be Pakistan’s ticket to revived global prestige and access, offering an attractive gateway to a scenic, mountainous country that has suffered a steep drop in foreign visitors during the past two decades of conflict. 

The airport is the nation’s largest, able to accommodate 9 million passengers a year and potentially expand to almost triple that capacity, officials said. It is also the first airport in Pakistan that can accommodate the double-decker Airbus A-380, the world’s largest passenger plane. 

“Peace has returned to Pakistan after years of terrorism, and now more tourists are coming. What we needed was an international airport, with high-tech facilities equipped to cater to their needs,” said Chaudhry Abdul Ghafoor, director of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corp. “Now that we have that, many international airlines will start their services here, and we estimate that millions of tourists will begin visiting every year.”

The ambitious expansion comes as Pakistan International Airlines, the country’s once-thriving national carrier, has become mired in financial difficulties and mismanagement and now possesses only 32 registered aircraft. Its future is uncertain, and various proposals to privatize or sell it have been inconclusive. 

 Officials are banking that the airport, built in a barren rural area about 25 miles from the capital, will spawn a profitable hub of domestic commercial and residential development, as well as travel services and hotels, creating thousands of jobs. Signs along the nearby highway offer shares in future condo and mall complexes with names such as “Airport Enclave” and “Runway View.” 

Aviation experts agreed that the replacement of the old Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Rawalpindi was long overdue. It was so crowded and run-down that frequent travelers sometimes referred to it as “the bus station.” But some observers cautioned against putting too much stock in the new airport as a cure-all for Pakistan’s aviation woes.

“Airlines are facing heavy taxes in Pakistan, and the authorities are strangling them,” said Farooq Rahmatullah Khan, a former director of the national Civil Aviation Authority. “Unfortunately, air travel here is seen as a luxury for the rich, when it is a necessity even for commoners,” he said, noting that large numbers of Pakistanis work as laborers in the Persian Gulf states and elsewhere abroad. He also said Pakistan needs to build more domestic airports in small cities to better connect and develop the country. 

The history of the new airport spans several political eras and upheavals. It was first envisioned during the 1980s, when the Pakistan People’s Party was in power; Benazir Bhutto served twice as prime minister from the PPP. The facility was not completed until the current era of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led until last year by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. During the interim period of military dictatorship, Bhutto was assassinated in 2007, and the Rawalpindi airport was renamed for her.

The new airport, however, proved far more difficult to name. The country’s two major historical heroes, founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah and poet Allama Iqbal, already have other airports named for them. Sharif, though extremely popular during several stints as premier, lost luster after being ousted by the Supreme Court in a corruption case.

 After lengthy debate over various possible candidates, all proved too contentious. Finally, officials announced last month that the new airport would be named after no one at all.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the cost of the construction of the airport. It cost close to $1 billion.

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