The last few weeks have been disruptive for China’s aviation sector, with the cancellations of tens of thousands of domestic flights after the discovery of a new cluster of Covid-19 infections in Nanjing in mid-July. Schedules are now returning to more normal levels, with the local outbreak contained. And the cutting of the ribbon to open another huge new airport in the eastern province of Shandong last month was another cause for celebration, as China’s aviation sector prepares for more years of boom.
We have reported on the launches of a number of mega airports over the last few years, including Beijing’s second international hub in Daxing (see WiC469) and Chengdu’s gigantic facility in Tianfu, which welcomed its first flights in July this year (see WiC547). Qingdao Jiaodong International Airport – to give the new aviation hub its full name – was the latest of the debutants. Located 35km from Qingdao’s urban centre, its opening on August 12 triggered the closure of the former air terminal in Shandong’s wealthiest city, after 39 years of service flying from nearer the CBD.
Qingdao’s old airport in the Liuting district of the city (it was first built by the Japanese in 1944 and was primarily used by the military till 1982) was processing nearly 26 million passengers annually before the pandemic took hold but it had little scope to grow capacity further.
The switch to Jiaodong frees up a large patch of valuable land and allows for a much larger hub. Connected to 130 domestic destinations and 50 cities in the world, the new site has annual capacity for 35 million passengers, with plans to grow that to 55 million in the years ahead.
The local media has been keen to promote its new hub, with mentions of how the terminal is more than double the size of Heathrow Airport. The bigger bragging right is that Jiaodong is the eighteenth airport in the country to achieve ‘4F’ status – certification that it can welcome the largest of the wide-bodied aircraft such as the Airbus A380.
Part of the momentum for the new airport plan comes from the desire to take fuller advantage of Shandong’s strategic location as a peninsula that juts out towards Korea and Japan. This gives the region the edge as a gateway for traffic between China and northeast Asia.
The switch also moves the airport closer to Weifang, another of Shandong’s major cities with a population of more than nine million (about a million less than Qingdao’s).
High-speed rail has cut travel times between the two cities to 45 minutes but with its closer proximity the new airport is expected to spur Weifang’s economy further as part of the clustering strategy beloved by so many of China’s provincial governments.
In fact Shandong has now separated its economy into three different development plans. To the east, the cities of Qingdao, Yantai, Weifang, Weihai and Rizhao are promoting the Jiaodong Economic Circle, underpinned by an Rmb100 billion ($15 billion) investment fund for local infrastructure. Jinan – the provincial capital – is at the heart of another cluster incorporating six nearby cities. There are four more cities making up a third circle of economic activity in the south nearer the border with Jiangsu.
The challenge for collaborations like these is how to stand out from the crowd in attracting investment and creating jobs. Hosting the main international airport in the province is going to help the Jiaodong circle, of course. Qingdao has also been trying to reposition itself as a fulcrum of the ‘blue economy’ (marine biomedicine, sustainable fishing and aquaculture, and desalination plants), building on its more recent experience as a maritime gateway for shipments of industrial commodities like iron ore and coal.
The region also touts its achievements in alcohol: the city of Yantai titles itself as the birthplace of the modern wine industry in China (“located on the same latitude as Bordeaux and blessed with perfect climate and soil conditions,” the China Daily explains), while Qingdao is home to Tsingtao, one of China’s best known beers, which was first brewed in the city by Germans in the early 1900s.
That heritage is now celebrated in the country’s biggest beer festival every year, which runs for three weeks in Qingdao every August.
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