But in addition Libya, which gradually is coming out of the cold after years of economic sanctions and trade embargoes, is also improving its airport infrastructure and investing in new aircraft in preparation for an anticipated growth in visitor numbers.

According to forecasts by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), passenger traffic is expected to rise in each of the North African countries over the next three years.

Algeria and Egypt are forecast to see the largest increases in passenger traffic between 2010 and 2013, with levels climbing by 8.3 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. Meanwhile, passenger traffic is predicted to rise by 6.9 per cent in Libya, 6.8 per cent in Morocco and 6.6 per cent in Tunisia.

Key fact – Between 2010-13, Algeria and Egypt are predicated to record the largest increases in passengers in North Africa

The liberalisation of the North African airline industry is also encouraging investment in airport infrastructure. In December 2006, Morocco signed a liberalisation agreement with the EU, which increased the number of airlines able to operate between Morocco and European destinations. Tunis is following Rabat’s lead and hopes to have an open-skies agreement in place as early as this year.

For the time being though it is Libya that is spending the most on its airports. According to regional projects tracker MEED Projects, Libya has $2.5bn-worth of airport projects under way as it upgrades its outdated civil aviation infrastructure as part of a larger national plan to revitalise its economy.

The country’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is executing three major airport projects, including a $1.4bn revamp of Tripoli International airport. A joint venture of Turkey’s TAV, Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Company and Brazil’s Odebrecht won the contract to build two new terminals in 2007.

Construction is under way although the project has been scaled back to just one functioning terminal.

An expansion of Sebha airport is also planned but will not be complete this year as scheduled, due to contract revisions. Some 2 million passengers are expected to pass through Sebha airport each year when it opens. Canada’s SNC-Lavalin, meanwhile, is working on a $600m expansion of Benghazi airport.

As an ever-increasing centre for tourism and as a gateway to the continent, the North African air travel sector is experiencing a fresh wave of interest

That project is due for completion in the third quarter of this year and will have an annual capacity of 5 million passengers.

Libya is not just investing in new infrastructure. The country’s national carrier, Libyan Airlines, has 15 aircraft on order, including seven Airbus A320s, four A350s and four A330s. The airline expects to take delivery of the first A320 by August, according to Tawfiq Tajouri, international co-operation director at the airline. As the carrier now has two code-sharing agreements in place with Germany’s Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines, it can now tap into demand in the European market.

There are also tentative plans for a merger between Libyan Airlines and the local Afriq-iyah Airways. Both airlines are currently part of the Libyan African Aviation Holding Company, along with state-owned aircraft maintenance and cargo-handling companies. It is expected that the airlines will remain in the group until profitability improves, after which there are plans for them to be privatised.

However, industry experts say that unless Libyan airports can attract an increase in actual demand, the likelihood of an upturn in revenues remains doubtful.

“The airports in Libya are meant to fulfil national objectives,” says Majdi Sabri, regional vice-president, Middle East and North Africa at IATA. “It is not clear if there will be sufficient demand to make them financially viable.”

Libya’s neighbour, Egypt, has no such fears. The country expects international passenger numbers to hit 18 million this year, compared with 12.7 million in 2005.

The increase is the result of many years worth of investment in developing its main tourist gateways of Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada, Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel.

Expanding hubs

At present, about $1bn-worth of projects are under way on airports in the tourism hotspots of the Red Sea and the Sinai peninsula.

Meanwhile, in the capital, renovation work on Cairo International airport’s terminal two is due to start this year. The project is being funded with the help of a loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction & Development. The renovated terminal will be able to handle up to 7.5 million passengers a year, almost double the current capacity. The project is being managed by Cairo Airport Company.

Jean-Pierre Tabet, chief commercial officer at Cairo Airport Company, says a mixture of increased tourism and business travel is driving the investment in airports in Egypt. “Transfer traffic through Cairo is increasing and together with Egypt Air expanding its fleet, our aim is to improve connectivity through Cairo airport,” he says.

Egypt Air is due to take delivery of two Boeing 777 aircraft in March and April, with an A380 to follow by the end of the year.

It is not just the national carrier that is investing to capitalise on the growth in Egyptian travel market.

Sharjah’s low-cost carrier, Air Arabia, has chosen Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline as the location of its third hub – it opened its second hub in Casablanca, Morocco, last year – which is due to open in the first half of this year.

Adel Ali, chief executive officer of the airline, says Egypt provides the perfect launch pad for the company’s future plans to expand and develop across North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. “As our operations in the region continue to strengthen, and based on passenger traffic, the airline intends to add destinations and increase the frequency of our services from both our North African hubs in Morocco and Egypt,” Ali tells MEED.

Alexandria’s second airport, Borg El-Arab, is currently undergoing a $100m expansion, which is being carried out by the local Orascom Construction and Belgium’s Besix. The expanded airport will have a capacity of 1.2 million passengers a year. It will replace Alexandria International airport when it opens in May year.

Elsewhere in the country, a new airport at Sohag opened in 2009 and a terminal in Taba airport in northern Sinai is scheduled to open this year and a new planned terminal for Assiut airport all allow further growth in passenger volumes.

As in Egypt, tourism is also playing a key role in driving investment in airport projects in Tunisia and Morocco.

In 2007, Turkish airport operator TAV won a 40-year contract to develop the Enfidha New International airport in Tunisia. Monastir airport, which is some 60 kilometres away, will be operated under a concession deal to eliminate competition between the two.

Capacity at Enfidha will be 5 million passengers a year once phase one is complete and 10 million passengers once phase two is finished in early 2011. The airport at Enfidha is aimed at serving the nearby coastal resorts of Hammamet and Sousse. There are also plans to expand Tunis-Carthage airport.

Tunisair is investing in 16 new Airbus aircraft which will started to be delivered from 2011. The airline intends to increase flights to Europe before expanding into North America and China.

In Morocco, meanwhile, the government is targeting the tourism sector to contribute 20 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product this year, with visitor numbers of 10 million.

About 8.3 million foreign passengers passed through Morocco’s airports in 2009, a 5 per cent increase compared with 2008, according to figures from the country’s tourism department. To accommodate these increased visitors, plans are under way to expand the Marrakech International airport and the kingdom’s airline Royal Maroc is investing in new aircraft.

Important gateway

The UK’s Scott Wilson group is acting as consultant on the $80m Marrakech Menara airport expansion project. An engineering, procurement and construction contract is scheduled to be awarded in the first quarter of 2010. Flag carrier Royal Air Maroc has about 28 aircraft on order to add to its 55-strong fleet.

Algeria is alone in the region in having no airport projects in the pipeline. The construction of a new terminal at its main hub Houari Boumediene airport was completed in 2006, but Algeria is still struggling to fill the available capacity at its airports as the country lacks an established tourism industry.

Houari Boumedienne airport, outside Algiers, has the capacity to handle 8.5 million passengers a year, but traffic remains less than half that, at about 4 million a year.

This is despite the fact that the national carrier, Air Algerie, has one of the largest fleets in the North Africa region with 37 aircraft and an impressive order book of new aircraft set to arrive. It has set itself a goal of operating 150 long-haul aircraft by 2025 along with opening long-distance routes.

It is unlikely that North Africa will ever rival their counterparts in the Gulf, whose hubs are heavily focused on transit traffic between Europe and the Asia Pacific region. But the Maghreb countries serve as an important gateway to Africa, with the investment now being channelled towards the sector they are much better positioned to capitalise on the growth in this market as well as the predicted rise in tourism numbers to their own countries.