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Kazakhstan 2018 | TRANSPORT | REVIEW

Airport traffic growth has slowed in recent years, but Kazakhstan is confident that increased investment will turn Astana's international airport into a regional hub.

Kazakhstan's size and population density give its transport sector unique challenges but also make it one of the foremost determinants in how successful the government's economic development plans are. The challenge facing the Kazakhstani transport sector is to provide efficient and reliable transportation options that ensure that rural areas have the same opportunities for economic development as urban centers. Recent years have seen billions of dollars flow into airport and road infrastructure in the hope of making Kazakhstan's goals a reality.

Roads are the primary method of transportation for most locals, but many are in poor condition, especially in rural areas. The World Economic Forum singled out the quality of Kazakhstan's roads as the weakest part of the country's transportation infrastructure, ranking it 115th in the world in 2017. A 2013 government report estimated that 9,000km of the nation's 30,000km of roads were in need of repair, including 2,500km with significant defects. Well aware of the issue, the government launched the USD21 billion Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) development program in 2015 to build the infrastructure needed for economic growth; while it includes a host of energy and economic reforms, rebuilding and expanding the country's aging infrastructure is one of its foremost priorities.
Government officials have expressed the desire to improve 80% of the nation's roads by 2020, and as of late 2017 more than 2,000km of roadways had been built or repaired. One of the most important long-term goals of the government is to complete a series of international road transport corridors that would allow for uninterrupted transport between Western Europe and China. Part of the Silk Road Economic Belt, Kazakhstan is eager to reap the benefits of this improved trade route.
Astana became the capital in 1997 but Almaty has remained the largest air transport hub since the government moved. Kazakhstan saw 12.2 million passengers pass through its airports in 2016, including 4.4 million international passengers. Almaty's airport saw 4.9 million passengers in 2016, compared to 3.4 million for Astana. Kazakhstan has 10 additional airports that see more than 100,000 annual passengers and several other smaller regional airports that are domestic only. 2016's passenger figures represented an increase of only 1% due to a sluggish economy, but growth rebounded in 2017, with flagship airline Air Astana recording double-digit passenger growth for the first time since 2013.
Officials expect significant future growth and are working on expansion efforts to turn the Astana and Almaty airports into Central Asian hubs. June 2017 saw the opening of a new 47,000-sqm international terminal at Astana airport, which increases annual capacity from 3.6 million to 8.2 million. Though still smaller than Almaty airport, Astana has seen greater growth in recent years, and the government's plans are for it to see annual traffic of 4 million passengers by 2020 and 8 million by 2025, numbers that would make it the centerpiece of the air transport sector. Air Astana recently relocated the bulk of its technical staff from Almaty to Astana, perhaps the strongest sign yet of the shifting direction of the industry.
Rail is a smaller part of Kazakhstan's transport network, but the government sees it as a crucial part of its long-term goal to become a key part of the logistical chain between Asia and Western Europe. The country has more than 14,767km of tracks, including 16 connection points with other international rail systems. 46% of freight in Kazakhstan was moved through rail in 2016, surpassing automobile transport (31%). Railroad stands to benefit handsomely from Kazakhstan's joint economic development agreements with China; since 2012, Kazakhstan has invested more than USD3 billion in developing rail infrastructure. Traditionally, most rail lines have focused on north-south routes with Russia as the central point of focus; however, Kazakhstan is pouring resources in building its east-west transit system to become a viable option for Chinese goods entering Europe.