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Fri 11 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Winter warmers

As the temperatures drop we take a look at where's hot and where's not when it comes to tapping into new and upcoming destinations.

Winter warmers
Winter warmers

As the temperatures drop we take a look at where's hot and where's not when it comes to tapping into new and upcoming destinations.

A raft of new destinations were launched by Middle East airlines for the summer ‘getaway' season, and as predicted by economic analysts, the region's low-cost carriers provided imaginative and wallet-friendly destination choices. At the same time, the legacy carriers did not hold back on bolstering their route networks despite the economic slump and it seemed that destination choices were not only being influenced by the summer season but also a change in consumer spending.

The same can be said for the winter months ahead, and as the temperatures fall and humidity subsides, airlines are hoping that new and imaginative destination choices will carry them through the ongoing economic crisis.

Of course, it is the low-cost carriers that continue to monopolise the market and despite flydubai still failing to confirm a start date for its Indian services it has confirmed network expansion into Africa, with the announcement of flights to Djibouti from September 1, 2009.

The new service will operate three times per week from Dubai and has been launched based on its commercial links with the UAE. At present, there are very few direct flights from Djibouti to Dubai and CEO Ghaith Al Ghaith said he was anticipating strong demand for the service from both the business and leisure markets.

Bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, Djibouti has a long history as a trading port and is strategically located on the Gulf of Aden. As a tourist destination it is popular among scuba enthusiasts.

Air Arabia is looking to match or exceed its net profit results for the first half of this year and its strong network plans are expected to continue with aplomb. Its new holiday booking service opened up new opportunities to the pioneering carrier as it unveiled a range of low-cost holiday packages from its hub in Sharjah to various exotic destinations in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Rumours of a third hub opening in Beirut have also emerged placing the airline in a strong position to continue its domination of the region's low-cost sector.

Not only that, but just four months after its launch, Air Arabia Maroc, the airline's second hub in Casablanca has begun operating flights to Amsterdam Schiphol, using Airbus A320s. From October, the service will be upped to daily flights.

During the summer, budget carriers such as flydubai and Air Arabia flew millions of passengers to a number of Egyptian cities including Alexandria and Luxor. In particular, Kuwait-based carrier Jazeera Airways gave special attention to Egyptian destinations and its chief commercial officer Steven Greenway told Aviation Business that the country offered excellent business opportunities for the airline.

"We fly to six destinations in Egypt; Alexandria, Assuit, Hurghada, Luxor, Sharm El Sheikh and Marsa Alam. Egypt presents an excellent opportunity for Jazeera Airways given it is a relatively underserved market."

But as winter approaches, it seems the larger carriers have cottoned on to the rising popularity of Egypt. British Airways is preparing to muscle in on budget carriers' business by re-launching flights to Sharm El Sheikh in October. The airline will also commence services to another seasonal favourite, the Maldivian tourist hot-spot Male, it being the first time BA has flown to the Maldives. Despite reports that the airline had hit hard times, area commercial manager Middle East Paolo de Renzis said: "We are committed to expanding our global network by introducing routes which offer customers increased options and convenience." De Renzis added that the destination choices were expected to yield high demand.

The competitive edge has not been adopted by all business models however. AirAsia X has spoken out saying it considers low-cost airlines based in the Gulf to be its allies, not rivals. It is preparing to launch flights in October between Malaysia and the UAE. Its CEO, Azran Osman-Rani told Khaleej Times that low-cost carriers such as Air Arabia and flydubai could supply AirAsiaX with passenger traffic from cities it served in the region. In turn, AirAsia X could provide traffic to these UAE-based carriers from the long-haul flights it plans to operate to Abu Dhabi.

AirAsia X selected Abu Dhabi as a destination and a hub partly because of the emirate's commitment to develop its airport as an international gateway. Abu Dhabi also offered a better customer catchment area than, for example, Sharjah, and airline competition in Abu Dhabi was less intensive than in Dubai, Osman-Rani said. "Both Emirates Airline and Malaysia Airlines fly between Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, whereas in Abu Dhabi, AirAsia X will have to compete only with Etihad Airways."

In fact, Etihad Airways has added a number of new destinations to its upcoming winter schedule, including Hyderabad and a long-haul flight to Chicago.

Hyderabad, which will be added to the airline's network in November, is a key Indian destination not currently served directly from Abu Dhabi. Etihad's CEO James Hogan said the carrier was expecting "particularly strong connecting traffic flows linking India to both North America and Europe". The airline is also pushing to secure further traffic rights from Abu Dhabi to other Indian cities, he said, including Bangalore.

Staying in India, and its premium carrier, Jet Airways has added Riyadh to its Saudi Arabian network, following the introduction of direct daily flights to Jeddah in July. Jet Airways will utilise a Boeing 737-800 aircraft on the new service to Riyadh, which is being operated four times a week.

Throughout the summer Saudi Arabia was in danger of becoming saturated with empty passenger jets. Emirates increased its flights to Riyadh and Jeddah, just as British Airways resumed its KSA routes following a four-year suspension. However, projections were justified in light of the fact that the Saudi Arabian Tourism Commission's long-term vision for the country's hospitality and religious tourism sector estimated that visitor numbers will nearly double from 47 million in 2008 to 88 million by 2020, while the number of hotel rooms would rise from 117,097 to 254,310.

When it came to new and emerging destinations, smaller airlines like Safi Airways began to popularise the Afghan city of Kabul as a day trip destination to Gulf travellers. But, just recently, renewed security alerts across the country have threatened to minimise Afghanistan's prospects of becoming a popular tourist destination and some airlines, like Air Arabia, have suspended all flights to Afghan destinations. However, in the lead up to the summer the volume in traffic from Dubai to Kabul  had doubled and subsequently Safi increased the route from daily to double daily. In addition, an Abu Dhabi to Kabul service flew twice weekly and flights from Kuwait to the Afghan capital were introduced.

Despite the political set back, Safi Airways chief commercial officer Claus Fischer was confident that the route had a fruitful future. "I think we will see more people travelling to Afghanistan because there is great political interest and there will be a lot of people moving in now."

Finally, Iraq is factoring in on airlines' networks and following its announcement to commence services to Baghdad on September 1, Gulf Air revealed record-breaking ticket sales of any newly launched destination.

The airline also announced it would add the holy city of Najaf and Erbil in Northern Iraq to its network by the end of September, and two further destinations could be introduced before the end of the year. It was a shrewd move from the carrier's new CEO Samer Majali. In fact, of the US$2 billion of non-oil foreign investment that was approved by the Iraqi government last year, $600 million went toward the tourism industry - funding parks, hotels, and other services - and in terms of religious tourism, Iraq has been experiencing some growth from long-denied pilgrims eager to visit Iraq's shrines.

Trend tracker

New route trends are filtering through to the business development level. The Routes Development Group, organiser of the annual World Route Development Forum has tweaked its Beijing event, which kicks off on September 13, by inviting tourism authorities and regional development agencies to meet with airlines and airports to raise awareness of upcoming destinations.

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