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1 Jan, 2001

Kenya Airways Flights to Bangkok Will Bring Africa Closer to Asia

The upcoming launch of Kenya Airways flights from Nairobi to Bangkok underscores the growing aviation contacts between Africa and Southeast Asia but has also highlighted the problem created by last year’s removal of visa-on-arrival privileges for African citizens.

As of 3 September 2003, Kenya Airways will become the third African airline to serve Bangkok after South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines, its primary competitor.

While these flights lift Bangkok as a major hub linking two great regions, airline executives are concerned that visa curbs will limit the growth of a potentially huge and lucrative market.

Until last year, citizens of several African countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia and Mali, could get visas on arrival at Bangkok airport. South African citizens don’t need visas.

In 2002, arrivals from African countries (excluding South Africa) rose by 5.70 % to 51,728, while arrivals from South Africa fell 10.24 %. This showed the tourism growth potential of East African countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Mali and others in Central and East Africa.

Inbound visitors from African countries are mainly traders who buy huge amounts of garments and fast-moving consumer products from the Pratunam and Bo Bae markets. In 2002, they had an average length of stay of 9.67 days and an average daily expenditure of 3,767 baht per person, both above the industry average of 7.98 days and 3,753 baht.

When the visa-on-arrival privilege was axed as of December 29, 2002, arrivals from Africa plunged immediately. In the first quarter of 2003, before SARS and war in Iraq began taking their full toll, arrivals from Africa (excluding South Africa) fell by 35 % as against a total arrivals decline of only 1.6 % during that period.

In January-June 2003, arrivals by air from Africa (excluding South Africa) at Bangkok airport fell 44 % to 13,610, with the SARS scare and the war in Iraq worsening the decline caused by the visa curbs.

A spokesperson for Ethiopian Airlines said Thai garment traders have suffered, not the airline. African buyers are still coming but have shifted their sources of supply to Guangzhou where they now go via Hong Kong which recorded a 39.4 % increase in African (excluding South Africa) arrivals in the first quarter of 2003.

Hong Kong allows visa-free free entry to nationals of more than 170 countries and territories, including nearly all the African countries. From there, citizens of countries like Nigeria, Uganda, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Somalia, etc., cross the border to Guangzhou where they get a business visa on arrival upon production of a sponsorship letter, which is easily issued by the hotel or the Chinese company from which the goods are being bought.

To get a Thai visa in Africa is a major problem. There are only five Thai diplomatic missions on the entire continent — South Africa, Morocco, Senegal, Egypt and Kenya.

The presence of the Thai mission in Nairobi will be a major competitive advantage for Kenya Airways, as it will get a lock on the Kenyan traders. It will be operating Nairobi – Bangkok – Hong Kong, v.v., using a Boeing 767-300 ER, a nearly similar route as Ethiopian which operates thrice weekly Addis Ababa – Bangkok – Hong Kong, v.v., also on a 767.

Both Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines have traffic rights between Bangkok – HK. Kenya Airways is introducing a launch fare of 4,520 baht return to HK, valid for travel before November 30, 2003. Ethiopian’s comparable fare is 5,670 baht.

Nairobi also hosts the UN regional headquarters in Africa, similar to Bangkok’s status as the regional HQ of the UN’s Asia-Pacific offices. High-yield UN traffic will now go direct between the two cities, diverting it from the transit point in Dubai.

Because of the huge trader traffic, Kenya Airways has seen no need to put any promotional holiday packages for Bangkok / HK into the African market. Instead, it is keen to attract outbound Thai and expatriate tourists to Kenyan safari and game parks with “Discover Kenya” packages of five to nine nights.

A representative of the Kenyan consulate in Bangkok said Thais can get a visa in one hour upon payment of 2,275 baht visa fee, accompanied by three pictures, a copy of the house registration certificate and ID card. Expatriates have to produce a work permit. Applications are only accepted between 0900-1200 on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Privatised in 1996 and now 26% owned by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Kenya Airways’ flights to Bangkok mark its first step into Southeast Asia and the second in Asia beyond Mumbai, India. It has pro-rate agreements with THAI, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern and Dragonair, and will be looking to pick up traffic from China via Bangkok.

The airline is forecasting at least 34,000 passengers in the first year of operation on this route. The Thai-Kenya aviation agreement allows for daily flights, leaving plenty of space to add frequencies should the market grow.

The Kenyan cabin-crew will be staying at the Sofitel Silom hotel, close to the Kenya Airways office in the SSP Tower on Silom. Eighteen cabin-crew have been recruited from other airlines and, between them, are said to be able to speak Thai, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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