Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday laid the first stone for Istanbul’s third airport, a multi-billion-dollar project expected to create one of the world’s busiest air hubs.
“Istanbul is marking a historic day. Turkey is marking a historic day. The biggest airport of the world and six continents is going to rise here,” Erdogan told a cheering crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony for the $30 billion (22 billion euro) project.
Erdogan said the first stage of the construction is set for completion on October 29, 2017 -- the 94th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey -- and the facility is projected to handle 150 million passengers a year when fully operational in 2018.
“We are building not just an airport, but actually a monument of victory today,” the premier said.
The facility will be constructed 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Istanbul on an area of 7,700 hectares (19,000 acres) and will accomodate 500 aircrafts.
The third airport in Turkey’s largest city aims to rival Dubai’s Al Maktoum International airport, which opened in October last year and is expected eventually to accommodate 160 million passengers a year.
A Turkish joint venture won a tender for the project last May obtaining a 25-year lease to build and operate the planned airport.
Plans to build a third airport have raised concerns among environmentalists who say they are protesting the construction of the facility in a heavily forested area near Terkos Lake as it is one of metropolitan Istanbul’s six main drinking water reservoirs.
The project was announced in May 2013 amid mass protests that started as a local environmental campaign to save an Istanbul park from redevelopment and evolved into a nationwide anti-government movement.
Erdogan suggested that the protesters were used as “pawns” by some groups trying to hamper Turkey’s growth and the government’s efforts to build the airport.
“Unfortunately, they couldn’t put up with such an airport,” Erdogan said.
“Those who hit the streets last year were unaware that they have been used as pawns while Turkey was celebrating historical achievements.
“Just like our friends are watching us with pride, our enemies are also watching this ceremony with frustration of not being able to stop this project.”
Erdogan’s government is frequently criticised for its ambitious construction plans for the bustling city of 16 million, which also include a third bridge across the Bosphorus and a canal parallel to the international waterway to ease traffic congestion.
The building industry has boomed under Erdogan but his government was hit by a now-stalled corruption probe in December investigating allegations of high-level bribery linked to some construction projects.
Despite the street protests and the corruption scandal implicating key government allies, the premier’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored a crushing victory in the local elections in March, boosting Erdogan’s ambitions to stand for president in August.