The French consortium of Vinciand Aeroports de Paris (AdP), Tepe Akfen Ventures of Turkey and the grouping of Germany’s Hochtief, France’s Aeroport de Nice (AdN) and SNC Lavalin of Canada are understood to be best placed among the seven prequalifiers.

Development of the airport is expected to take four years, with infrastructure work on the site likely to take at least 12 months. A 4,000-hectare plot has been selected for the development, which will include a terminal of 30,000-40,000 square metres.

A number of changes are being made to the initial design studies undertaken by AdP. The studies originally envisaged an airport with capacity of 5.5 million passengers a year, but an initial capacity of 2.5 million-4 million passengers a year is now more likely. The first phase of the project will involve the construction of one runway, as opposed to the two in the initial designs, and a second runway, rather than the four initially envisaged, may be added in phase 2, which is expected to double the airport’s capacity.

Crucially for potential bidders, Monastir airport, which is only 60 kilometres from the Enfidha site, has now been made part of the concession. This would give the successful bidder a revenue stream during the development of Enfidha and relieve the issue of competition between the two airports by opening the door to the potential closure of Monastir once Enfidha is operational.

Recent progress in the negotiations is understood to be offering some encouragement to potential bidders, after previous attempts to let the contract failed to attract a bid. ‘Until recently, AdP wasn’t prepared to bid,’ says a source at the company. ‘But now they are quite interested, and I am sure they will submit an offer.’ If the French consortium wins the contract, Vinci will carry out construction work, with design and maintenance to be done by AdP.

Discussions are still ongoing on landing and passenger rights, however, and a proposal to increase passenger fees by Eur 1 ($1.20) a year for the next three-four years is understood to be at the heart of a debate within the Tunisian government. ‘The Transport Ministry is in favour of increasing passenger fees to make it more attractive to investors,’ says a source close to the project. ‘The Tourism Ministry fears damage to the tourism industry.’

Also at issue is the potential level of traffic for the new airport. Doubts still hang over planned tourist developments along the 50-kilometre white sand coast between Hammamet and Monastir, and traffic levels at Monastir have not yet recovered to year-2000 levels, before the terrorist attacks in the US and Djerba.