It’s hardly a secret that the key to the success of any tourism destination around the world is airline accessibility. Africa seems to have woken up to this concept, and the continent has seen numerous airlines aggressively expanding to capture a share of the profitable tourism market.
Ethiopian Airlines has recently begun extending its market reach and is offering flights to Asia and South America, with regular flights to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo beginning in July. The Ethiopian flag carrier is aggressively acquiring new planes and opening new routes, such as one to Shanghai beginning at the end of March. Recently, the airline also bought a 49% stake in Malawi Airlines, and it is in the process of opening a third hub in Blantyre, a city in that Southeastern African country.
Kenya Airways isn’t lagging behind. The airline’s CEO, Titus Naikuni, is predicting an exciting couple of years for African air travel with new Boeing Dreamliners to be delivered in April this year, the opening of a new terminal at Jomo Kenyatta Airport and Kenya’s first direct flights to the U.S. Naikuni explains: “As part of our expansion plans, project Mawingu, Kenya Airways plans to fly to Washington D.C. [beginning in] 2016-17.”
However, the development that has opened up the African continent even more to tourism from around the world is the appearance of numerous low-cost carriers in several African countries. Kenya Airways’ much-awaited low-cost carrier Jambo Jet is set to begin flights from April this year. Jambo Jet is expected to begin local flights from Nairobi to Kisumu, Eldoret and Mombasa before venturing to other regional destinations.
Fastjet is also rapidly expanding into Africa. The carrier launched its first flight in November 2012 from Tanzania but has announced it will quickly expand its route network, operating from many more countries over the next few years. The airline is already in the process of opening a base in Lusaka, Zambia, in the near future. Fastjet CEO, Ed Winter says: “There are a number of small, local airlines providing unreliable and intermittent services on domestic Zambian routes, and there is strong evidence of a need for a dependable airline that can offer good value, high quality and regular services.”
Fastjet is also still eyeing a base in South Africa, along with three other contenders: Skywise, FlySafair and 1time. The first two are start-ups, the last a popular but bankrupt low-cost flyer that is being resurrected by new investors.
International tour operators have welcomed the surfacing of low-fare airlines across Africa, saying it will render the continent more affordable. Jim Holden, president of African Travel, explains: “International tour operators have a problem finding affordable international flights with the lead times that some safaris take to plan, as discounted flights usually have very short lead times and duration.”
According to Holden, increased airlift would be most welcome in order to be able to create innovative itineraries. He explains: “An increasing number of countries open up to international travelers interested in Africa’s wildlife, such as the French Congo with its lowland gorillas. West/east flights are a constraint, however, when putting together innovative itineraries that can combine lowland gorillas in Congo Brazzaville with, say, a safari into Tanzania, as there are not many scheduled flights, if any at all.”
Ben Parker, director of the Tongabezi Lodge in Zambia, agreed and said international travelers currently are restrained by the high cost of getting to the remote areas. He explained there is often no option other than to charter a light aircraft, which tends to be quite expensive.
Rumit Mehta, the founder of Immersion Journeys, said that although there is no doubt that the entrance of more low-cost carriers into the market would be welcome, tour operators will be wary of booking one of those airlines without a solid backing, as several in the past have gone belly-up because their business model failed.
Mehta explained that to gain the trust of tour operators, new airlines should offer clarity and transparency. “The process by which to book should be easy to navigate (credit card, security, e-ticket issuance) and be bookable on the GDS. It will be important that while there is a lot of excitement regarding the entry of LCCs that they remain reliable. That is: good customer service, 24-hour hotline, etc. The last thing any passenger traveling to Africa wants is a lack of clarity or being stranded.”