14 Oct 2013

Construction begins on Vanuatu's controversial convention centre

7:03 pm on 14 October 2013

Construction of Vanuatu's controversial new National Convention Centre has started after months of delay.

The multi-purpose facility is being built next to parliament, with more than 16 million US dollars worth of funding from China.

Beverley Tse was recently in Vanuatu and compiled this report...

The project has attracted widespread criticism, with some describing it as a waste of space and money, and unnecessary because the country already has a convention centre at Le Lagon Resort.

The deputy opposition leader and former Prime Minister Sato Kilman says the Le Lagon resort was a project established under urgency to host the African, Caribbean, Pacific and European Union meetings in June last year.

"SATO KILMAN: The Le Lagon one came behind. There was already commitment on the part of the government on the convention centre to be funded by the Chinese."

The executive director of the Port Vila-based think tank, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, says the facility is far too grand for what is needed. Derek Brien says concerns have arisen based on previous investments of a similar scale in the region.

DEREK BRIEN: Classic example is in Samoa where there were massive sporting facilities constructed for the Pacific Games a few years back. Facilities now that, you know, the state simply can't afford to run. And that's a concern here. It's such a huge facility. What about the maintenance costs, how are you going to maintain a building like that? How are you going to run the air-conditioning, the lighting, the expense of just day to day operation?

The location of the facility has also been at the centre of controversy between the present and former government. The Chairman of the National Convention Centre task force, Jortham Napat says the current government set out to relocate the project in April in an attempt to preserve the green space at Parliament Park. But the Council of Ministers has since revoked that idea. Mr Napat says engineers working for the China Jiangsu Provincial Construction Company had already carried out a feasibility study and deemed the site fit for construction.

JORTHAM NAPAT: So for the government to actually relocate this project to another site, it would cost the government quite a substantial amount of money. And also it's in breach of the contract that was already signed by the government with the construction company.

Jortham Napat says foundation work began at the beginning of this month. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Natapei says the facility is necessary.

EDWARD NATAPEI: We cannot hold international meetings and attract big meetings to this country until we build an international convention centre. That is what the Chinese are building now and that is going to accommodate large meetings. We have bid for the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting for 2017. That will accommodate that.

Construction of the convention centre is expected to take two years and when complete, it will accommodate large and small conferences with its 600 and 1,000 seat meeting rooms.