BEIJING, Jun 29 (GCTL) - When Mangshi opened its airport two decades ago, the small tropical city on China's border with Myanmar was served by few airlines. China's recent travel boom has changed that - seven carriers brought in more than 1 million visitors last year.
"We had a hard time attracting airlines in the early days," Li Ping, deputy chief of the airport's expansion steering committee, said. "Now we are struggling to accommodate flights."
Mangshi is one of more than 60 inland airports under expansion, with another 30 new regional airports being built. Government planners estimate China's airports will increase to 240 by 2020 from around 200 today.
Li Jiaxiang, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), said this week the country would invest USD$80 billion in aviation projects this year alone.
The aviation market is being lifted by rising business travel and a surge in outbound tourism fuelled by an increasingly wealthy middle class in coastal and inland cities.
The number of leisure travellers going overseas for the first time topped 100 million in 2014, official data shows. Foreign travel is tipped to grow another 10 percent this year as the United States, France and Australia ease visa policies.
That has prompted Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines to fly to New York, Paris and Sydney from Nanjing, Wuhan or Chengdu, or at least with a stopover in those second-tier cities.
China's so-called Silk Road initiative is also certain to boost traffic. Under the scheme, the government aims to extend its economic and political influence to neighbouring countries. A network of rail, roads and new air routes are part of the plan.
Last year passenger volumes at Chengdu's Shuangliu airport and Chongqing's Jiangbei airport rose 12.6 percent and 15.8 percent, respectively, beating Beijing's 2.9 percent gain and Guangzhou's 4.4 percent increase.
Xiamen's Gaoqi airport handled 20.9 million passengers, far exceeding its designed capacity of 15 million, while Dalian is expected to hit full capacity in 2016.
Sceptics warn about white elephant projects such as the barely used airport in Dachangshan island off China's northeast coast. Many existing airports are also in loss due to huge upfront investments.
CAAC's Li said the country's airport expansion is supported by data showing rising passenger numbers.
"Airport building should be a bit ahead of the demand. Judging from the experience of the developed world, our airport construction is far from enough," Li said. "We are still unable to catch up with demand."
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