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Dec 7, 8:09 AM EST

Senegal opens new international airport with economic hopes



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DIASS, Senegal (AP) -- Senegal's new international airport was opening its runways Thursday as the West African country hopes to become a travel hub for the region.

Airport International Blaise-Diagne, which had faced more than 10 years of delays, is meant to anchor Senegal's economic and tech center. The airport has had mixed reviews with its location of more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the capital, Dakar. A connecting train service is still years from completion.

The airport, with an estimated cost of $575 million, is five times larger than the old one. It is expected to see 3 million passengers in its first year. The government is aiming for 5 million passengers in 2023 and 10 million in 2035.

A number of cities in West Africa are competing to be the region's air hub including Lome, Togo, which is the base of operations for ASKY Airlines, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Leopold Sedar Senghor international airport, located in the congested capital, was closing Thursday and has been handed over to Senegal's military. Most airlines including Delta, Royal Air Maroc, TAP and others have confirmed they will switch over once the old airport closes.

The new airport is vital to Senegal's growth, said Tidiane Tamba, spokesman for its management company Limak-Aibd-Summa.

"That's our mission, to become the new hub of Africa," Tamba told The Associated Press.

Though far from Dakar, the airport sits between the capital and beach towns that authorities hope will draw more tourism.

The capital accounts for about 55 percent of Senegal's GDP, according to the World Bank, and the airport is meant to spur economic growth in an area that remains largely farmland. An international conference center and hotel have been constructed and a sports arena and housing are being built.

Addressing concerns about traffic, local bus company Dakar Dem Dik director Moussa Diop has said 40 buses will travel between Dakar and the new airport 24 hours a day.

Taxi drivers estimate that a trip to the new airport will cost around $32.

Perrine Lucas and Balla Moussa Bangoura arrived at the old airport Wednesday from France and were told by Transair that their connecting flight for Zinguinchor would leave Thursday from the new airport.

Though they marveled at its size and modern finish, "it's quite complicated to get here and expensive," Lucas said.

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Associated Press writer Babacar Dione in Dakar, Senegal contributed.

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