Croatia's capital is increasingly being seen by airlines not only as a gateway to Central and South-East Europe, but as an international destination in its own right as well. Jacques Feron, CEO of Zagreb International Airport, discusses how its new passenger terminal building will significantly enhance the site's capacity as well as the burgeoning tourist economy of Croatia.

Zagreb has had an airport, in one form or another, since 1909, when rickety, cloth-winged biplanes bounced along a primitive strip built by a local dignitary. Known as Penkala's runway and situated in meadowlands of nearby Crnomerec, the aerodrome was Croatia's first, and continued to be used by civilian and military aircraft alike until 1926. However, it was not until 1962, when Zagreb Airport was entered into Register of Companies, that the country's capital would be serviced by another airport of comparable significance.

Today, Zagreb International Airport is one of the busiest in Central and South-East Europe, with annual passenger traffic of 2.6 million in 2015. In the next five years, that number is set to rise significantly as the airport embarks upon the construction of a new €331-million passenger terminal. The project is being overseen in partnership with Zagreb Airport International Company (ZAIC), an international corporate consortium consisting of Aéroports de Paris Management, a wholly owned subsidiary of Aéroports de Paris; Bouygues Bâtiment International, a subsidiary of Bouygues Construction; TAV Airports; Viadukt; the Marguerite Fund; and the IFC, a member of the World Bank Group.

"The airport has officially set the first quarter of 2017 for the opening of the new terminal building," explains Jacques Feron, CEO of Zagreb International Airport. "Once completed, we will be able to increase our current passenger handling capacity to five million a year."

Work on the structure is intended to be finished by the end of 2016, after the required testing period for all the newly installed technology on site has been completed.

"[Having] a strong and consistent consortium behind the project ensures a synergy of knowledge, international know-how and experience," says Feron. "Combined with the goal-oriented business approach at Zagreb International Airport, it is expected that development and growth of the airport's handling capacity, as well as the increase in air travel and network of available routes, will be achieved as planned."

Spreading wealth

The overall construction of the project, including the building of the necessary drainage systems, car parks and access roads, is being overseen by Bouygues Bâtiment International and Viadukt. The services of local Croatian subcontractors have been rendered throughout the process. Lending for the project – a total investment of €350 million has been made – has come from shareholders, financial investors, and loans from institutions including the European Investment Bank, Deutsche Bank and the IFC.

"The new terminal building is projected to stand out in the region in terms of its contemporary design and state-of-the-art facilities," says Feron. "For example, all of the public areas have been designed according to the highest international standards in order to guarantee smooth circulation of passengers through the terminal space."

The design of the new passenger terminal was conceived by Croatian architects Branko Kincl and Velimir Neidhardt. In total, the structure will incorporate 65,000m² of space over four levels, divided between arrivals and departures. Additionally, two piers will stretch out from the main body of the terminal, with one dedicated to international traffic and the other to domestic flights. Eight boarding bridges will also be in operation – meaning passengers avoid having to transfer to a different flight by bus – and 30 check-in counters.

"It is currently the biggest project in Croatia," Feron says. "For the passengers, it will definitively improve the quality of service, reduce the stress of queuing, and increase space for shopping or resting. The new terminal will improve the perception of Croatia by creating an image of modernity and efficiency, giving a new face to Zagreb to help the city fully exploit its potential as an attractive destination in Central and South-East Europe."

Coast to boast

Even prior to independence, Croatia's vibrant tourist economy was concentrated on its Adriatic coastline, in and around the cities of Split and Dubrovnik. However, in recent years, travellers have also been flocking, in increasing numbers, to the country's red-roofed capital. In 2014, ZAIC's first year of operations, Zagreb International Airport saw passenger traffic grow by 5.7%. The following year, that rose to 6.5%, with traffic figures continuing their positive streak for 27 consecutive months as of June 2016.

During this period, eight new airlines were welcomed to the airport, allowing the expansion of flights along existing routes and the opening of a few new ones. An important milestone for the concessionaire was Croatia Airlines' four new routes launched recently, following completion of a three-year restructuring programme. Having stabilised financially, the Zagreb-based carrier began operating flights to Lisbon, Milan, Prague and St Petersburg in late May.

Apart from the routes where the frequencies or capacities have increased, the Toronto route, welcoming Air Transat to Zagreb, was a primary cause for celebration. The Canadian leisure airline became the latest partner of Zagreb Airport, cementing the city's growing reputation not only as a gateway between Western, and Central and South-East Europe, but also as a viable international destination in its own right.

"According to our summer timetable, 2016 will be marked by the arrival of even more airlines, routes and larger aircraft," says Feron. "By the end of this year, we expect to sustain a growth rate of up to 7% in passenger numbers, ultimately welcoming 2.75 million new travellers."

Once the new passenger terminal is completed, Zagreb International Airport will be able to host double that number. "With the extensions of the building that are forecast along the concession duration of 30 years, it will then be possible to increase the capacity even further, up to a ceiling of eight million passengers a year."

Ultimately, Feron and ZAIC view the new passenger terminal building as the conduit to facilitate whole new era for Croatian tourism.

"A modern airport is not only a local advantage, but also a requirement for the further development of Zagreb and Croatia," says Feron. "It will have a positive impact on the number of tourists visiting the country each year and will continue to play a significant role in the country's overall economic development."