China Everbright Group buys Albanian airport operator

TIRANA (Reuters) - China Everbright Group, a state-backed financial firm, bought all the shares of Albania’s airport operator for an undisclosed sum on Friday, hailing the deal as part of China’s push to build trade links with Europe.

The deal marks the first major investment by a Chinese company in NATO-member Albania, which became an ally of China in the 1960s when it split with the Soviet Union. Albania relied on Chinese aid until 1978 to build almost all of its industry.

The Chinese government has been encouraging local firms to invest overseas under its “One Belt, One Road” program and Chinese firms are increasingly investing in overseas infrastructure projects.

The acquisition of was in line with One Belt, One Road, Chen Shuang, the CEO of China Everbright Ltd. 0165.HK, a unit of the China Everbright Group, said.

“With CEL’s support and resources, TIA can further upgrade their facilities and hardware meeting excellence in all aspects,” he said in a joint statement with Tirana International Airport (TIA).

TIA operates the main international Rinas airport, where passenger numbers have risen to 1.9 million in 2016 from 600,000 in 2005. TIA says it has invested 70 million euros ($78.14 million) since 2005 to develop and expand the airport.

A TIA spokesperson said no sale figure was available, but previous reports said the Chinese group had paid $90 million to operate the airport until 2027. The concession was extended by two years after a deal opened the way for international flights to land at Kukes airport in the northeast.

TIA’s shareholders are AviAlliance GmbH, formerly HOCHTIEF AirPort GmbH, DEG - the German Investment and Development Company promoting investments in developing countries - and the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund (AAEF).

($1 = 0.8958 euros)

Reporting by Benet Koleka, editing by Susan Thomas