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1 Aug, 2005

New Thai Airways Flights to Jo’burg Will Spur Asia-Africa Links

The launch of Thai Airways International’s flights to Johannesburg on December 3, 2005 will further boost the role of Bangkok as an Asian hub for contacts with Africa, set to be a major growth area of the future.

THAI will be using its long-range A340-600 operating three flights a week under a code-share with South African Airways (SAA).

This will mark the resumption of direct aviation contacts between Thailand and South Africa since the suspension of the SAA flights several years ago, which were also code-shared with Thai Airways but used SAA equipment.

Thai Airways is projecting load factors of 75 % in the early period, comprising of 65 % point-to-point traffic and 35 % connecting traffic from China, Taiwan, Japan and Australia.

Traffic between these points and South Africa is currently being flown by Thai Airways’ competing airlines via Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The fact that Thais and South Africans both get reciprocal visa-free privileges is expected to be a big boost for tourist and business traffic, especially Thai gems traders and garment merchants.

Thai Airways will code-share with SAA on internal South African sectors like Durban and Cape Town as well as to southern African countries like Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. There are plans to launch strong promotions and also include Southern Africa in the airline’s in-house tour packages.

In recent years, Bangkok has attracted growing interest from airlines from sub-Saharan Africa. It is now served by Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Air Madagascar.

The Aviation Department had been notified of plans by Air Zimbabwe to start flights in August 2005 but these were postponed until further notice due to the complications posed by higher oil prices.

This interest is primarily due to Bangkok’s geographical advantage as a transit point en route to China, the ultimate destination being targetted by African carriers.

As of summer 2005, Thailand had bilateral aviation agreements with Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Morocco, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Another agreement with Togo is due to be signed in 2005.

All are open-sky agreements that allow airlines of the two countries to fly unlimited frequencies using any equipment on 3 rd and 4th freedom sectors.

They also allow the African airlines to seek beyond rights from Bangkok to Chinese points. Aviation authorities are also mindful of the upcoming cash-flow requirements of Suvannabhumi airport, which will need all the airline customers it can get.

The Aviation Department realises that the African airlines may overfly Bangkok if they don’t get the China rights, and can alternately fly there via India or Dubai.

Thai Airways is keeping a close watch on the situation to assess the impact on its own flights between Bangkok and China. At the moment, this impact is negligible, at the moment, because of differences in product and frequency.

Aviation Department officials say they coordinate closely with the Thai Commerce Ministry which is taking the lead in identifying potential business opportunities in Africa in order to sign broader economic free trade agreements with specific African countries. The aviation agreements are dovetailed into those wider agreements.

At the moment, the most important problem is visas.

Before 9/11, more than 30 African countries could get visas on arrival for Thailand. This regulation was revised for ‘security reasons’ and, as of December 2002, visa on arrival privileges were cancelled for nearly all the African countries.

Now, only South African passport holders get 30-day visa free and Mauritius citizens get visa on arrival.

Statistics presented at the Tourism Authority of Thailand marketing plan meeting earlier this month showed that this led to significant declines in arrivals in 2003 from African countries like Ghana, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Togo.

The fact that there are Thai embassies only in Dakar (Senegal), Nairobi (Kenya), Pretoria (South Africa) and Cairo (Egypt) adds to the complication.

Regional destinations like Malaysia and Singapore have been more selective in their visa policies, steering clear of a blanket ruling affecting nearly all the African countries in favour of only those perceived as a threat.

As a result of the visa curbs, many traders from Africa also diverted their bulk-purchasing business to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, both of which are served from Bangkok by Ethiopian Airlines.

Trader traffic comprises a significant percentage of African arrivals to Thailand. They bulk-buy huge volumes of consumer products like bags, toys, garments, textiles, shoes, gemstones, electronics, even second-hand mobile phones and fake watches.

Traders come in via Kenya and Ethiopia from many parts of East and Central Africa, including Mali, Tanzania and Uganda.

They operate on a cash-and-carry basis. This means paying huge amounts in excess baggage, often leading to flight delays as check-in staff at the airline counters at Bangkok airport go crazy over the bargaining that ensues.

Although this trade goes into the millions of dollars, the fact that it does not pass through the usual customs channels means that it does not get factored into the national trade statistics.

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