Did you know it's more expensive per kilometer to fly within Africa than it is to fly overseas from South Africa?
Statistics show that a flight from Johannesburg in South Africa to Gaborone in Botswana is roughly eight times more expensive per kilometer than a flight from South Africa to New York.
No wonder tour operators in Africa are eager to see open skies become a reality; with open skies comes the promise of lower airfares and ease of access.
Africa has been talking about open skies since 1999, when 44 African nations vowed to fully liberalize air transport in the Yamoussoukro Declaration. The target was set for 2002. Fifteen years later, open skies have yet to become a reality on the continent.
However, in January this year, Africa seemed to finally take a step in the right direction with the launch of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) initiative by the African Union (A.U.) to open Africa's skies and improve intracontinental air connectivity.
At the launch of the SAATM, David Kajange, the head of the A.U.'s transport and tourism division, told reporters that open skies could mean a 30% drop in airfares. For tour operators, however, the most exciting prospect is that increased air access will enable their clients to explore undiscovered parts of Africa.
"With most of Africa's iconic destinations situated in remote areas, air access is absolutely crucial for tourism on the continent. Reduced rates and an increase in scheduled flights on competent, trusted air carriers that have strong balance sheets will undoubtedly improve second- or third-tier access to countries such as Zambia, Gabon and Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Namibia," said AndBeyond CEO, Joss Kent.
SW Africa managing director Henk Graaff agreed, saying: "Travelers today are looking for new and far-flung destinations. In a world where exclusivity has become the new definition of luxury, open skies will bring untapped opportunities for tour operators and their clients."
Graaff explained that Rwandair has already started offering flights from Kigali to Cape Town with a stopover in Harare, Zimbabwe. "These kinds of flights make a combination of gorilla safaris and a visit to Cape Town a lot easier," he said.
Holden Safaris' Jim Holden said another good example is Kenya Airways' flight between Nairobi, Kenya, and Cape Town, which stops at the Victoria Falls. "This has enabled many more tourists to visit Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa on the same safari, benefiting all four countries," he said, adding that until Zambia had greater air access, its tourism business struggled to expand despite the country's game parks and exceptional wildlife.
Madagascar is also a country that is likely to benefit greatly from open skies, according to Travel Beyond's Marguerite Smit, who said the destination has piqued the interest of travelers in recent years. "Opening up the airways to foreign operators will have positive effect on the economy of most African countries. There is unlimited growth potential in this sector of the industry," she said.
Natalie Tenzer-Silva, director at Dana Tours, said she expects tourism to Mozambique to flourish as a result of open skies. "The distances in Mozambique are vast and difficult to cover by road, so travelers tend to stick to where the international and regional flights take them," she said. "If we create hubs in the south, center and north, with a network of flights, then they can travel throughout the country and not stick to the traditional tourist spots such as Inhambane, Cabo Delgado and Maputo provinces. There are so many secrets to be shared from Gorongosa Park to the tea plantations in Gurue to lake Niassa, but we need a good network of flights to incorporate these places into different itineraries and be able to sell Mozambique as a one-stop holiday destination."
Sean Kritzinger, co-owner and director of Giltedge Africa, said the lack of air access is indeed the single most limiting factor to any destination. "Travelers don't have much time, so need to get to their destination as quickly as possible. Many international travelers do multiple destinations in one trip i.e. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia or East Africa. I see these multicountry trips increasing if air access becomes easier," he said.
Kritzinger warned, however, that the SAATM initiative will only help grow tourism on the continent if the carriers all operate professionally. He said: "If the safety records and professionalism of airlines like SAA and Ethiopian Airlines can be matched by other airlines, this will have a great impact."
So far, 23 African states have signed up to the SAATM, which is a huge and important step towards open skies. However, Raphael Kuuchi, IATA's vice president for Africa, said the benefits of a connected continent will only be realized through effective implementation of the SAATM, not only by the countries already committed but also by the remaining 32 A.U. member nations still to come on board.
Said Kuuchi: "Now it's time to get down to the work of implementation. Greater connectivity will lead to greater prosperity. Governments must act on their commitments and allow their economies to fly high on the wings of aviation."