With a currency guaranteed by the French treasury and — most important — its long stable political environment, Senegal has huge potential, according to analysts. Optimism is palpable in Dakar, where pounding from hammers rings out all day at construction sites for seaside apartment complexes and offices.
The nation’s stable democracy “compensates for some weaknesses Senegal might have,” said Aurélien Mali, a senior analytical adviser for Africa for Moody’s.
One weak spot is the nation’s huge debt level, which amounts to 60 percent of its annual economy. The country also has vast numbers of unemployed young people, some of whom risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to get to Europe in the hope of finding work.
Other countries in the region, including Mali and Burkina Faso, have growing economies, and Nigeria is a top economy on the continent.
Senegal’s chief rival is Ivory Coast, which has a much larger economy. But the Ivory Coast economy was shaken when civil war broke out in the early 2000s, and aid groups and corporations moved their headquarters to Dakar. More recently it has experienced two terrorist attacks at hotels, scaring off potential tourists and new businesses.
The new airport may give an edge to Senegal. It’s one of the biggest and most expensive compared to several that have recently replaced older airports in Ivory Coast and Togo or are in the works elsewhere the region. Senegal also has a geographic edge over other nations: it is the closest point on the continent to the Americas.
Senegalese officials hope the airport serves three million passengers in its first year.
“Our goal is to make Senegal a leader in air transportation in the region and a major player in the international airline business,” said Mohamed Habiboulah Fall, a spokesman for the new airport.
A recent discovery of offshore oil and gas near the border of Mauritania has left officials giddy at the opportunity to transform Senegal’s economy and create new jobs. But analysts point out that the region offers numerous cautionary tales of the widespread corruption that can come with oil revenues.
“There are already mistakes by other countries in the region from which Senegal can either learn from, or stand the risk of becoming another country that failed to utilize its resources well,” said Babacar Sene, director for the center of research for applied economics at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar.
The president’s plan for Senegal still faces challenges.
Most projects at the new city are still under construction, including even infrastructure for small marketplaces. Housing for workers at the sites, in the middle of an empty, scrubby landscape dotted by baobabs, has yet to be completed. Just one hotel near the new airport, a Radisson Blu, is accepting customers. An expensive express rail service to the airport is nowhere near finished.
Frequent fliers here have dreaded the new airport’s opening because it means that in most cases their travel time to and from Dakar itself will quadruple because of clogged roadways, including a fraught stretch outside a busy soccer stadium. A taxi ride to the new airport costs around $35; the ride to the old one cost less than five dollars.
Taxi drivers appear to be among the hardest hit by the opening of the new airport. Elimone Thiaw, the secretary general for the union of taxi drivers at the old airport, said that his union has over 500 registered taxis but that so far only 100 of those have been allowed to work at the new airport.
The other taxis, he said, will be forced to compete for fares on the streets of Dakar. That, he said, will thwart the president’s hope of the new airport relieving congestion in the overcrowded city.
On Thursday, Paul Diatta was among passengers waiting for flights under the futuristic, wavy, white-paneled roof that reflected off the new terminal’s gleaming white floor. Because he feared traffic jams, he had arrived six hours before his flight was to depart. Getting to the airport, especially on the official inaugural day, was difficult, he said.
“They should have at least done the inaugural ceremony today and started operations tomorrow so that we won’t struggle through the crowd and heavy traffic to get to here,” Mr. Diatta said.
Still, for travelers, the new airport is a welcome relief from the grimy walls, broken seats, stale croissants, struggling air-conditioning and mosquito-infested waiting areas of Dakar’s creaky old airport. The best attribute there might have been the graffiti in the women’s bathroom politely wishing fliers safe travels. And now, passengers will no longer have to climb stairs to board planes; they can instead use air-conditioned bridges.
Diplomats who toured the airport fretted over the amount of last-minute work, including electrical wiring strung to check-in counters. More important, many had concerns about the safety of the airport’s jet-fuel supply area, where work was still going on in recent days.
The problems will be solved, most diplomats said, but it will take time.
The new airport, halfway between Dakar and a popular beach resort area, will probably help increase tourism, said Mayoro Racine, chief executive officer for Aerospace Consulting and Engineering in Dakar.
But merely building an expensive airport is not enough, he said.
“For the airport to fully function and generate income,” Mr. Racine said, “it should be able to take care of the welfare of travelers and help make travel easy.”