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20 Apr, 2009

Air Astana Flights To Bangkok Unaffected by Thai Crisis

Almaty, Kazakhstan:  If Thailand is looking for ways to prop up the moribund travel & tourism industry in these difficult times, it may need to venture into countries where the troubles in Thailand get little media coverage, where governments don’t issue travel advisories and where the people have the money and the means to travel, come what may.

Enter Kazakhstan.

Even as the Battle for Bangkok was raging last week, load factors on Air Astana, the national airline of Kazakhstan, from Almaty to Bangkok were amazingly in their 90s, says Peter Foster, the airline’s president. Indeed, when this reporter flew to Almaty last week, the flight was visibly full in both business and economy class.

Because Bangkok is the only destination in Southeast Asia served by Air Astana, it gives Thailand an unassailable edge in attracting tourism. In spite of a recent devaluation of the Kazakh currency to about 150 tenge to the US$, there is plenty of money to go around in a country that is rich in oil and gas, marked by harsh winters and totally landlocked.

As Kazakhs get a visa on arrival, Thailand becomes virtually a natural choice as it provides value for money, plenty of sunshine and the opportunity for Kazakhs to enjoy the sea year-round.

Says Mr Foster, “Even when Bangkok airport was shut down last year and we had to send special flights in to U-tapao to take out the stranded passengers, our southbound flights were chock-full.”

Due to aircraft constraints and a cautious, conservative approach that has forced some scaling back across the board due to the global financial crisis, there are no immediate plans to increase the daily Boeing 757/767 frequencies into Bangkok at the moment.

However, because the airline is concentrating on developing its own regional network within the Central Asian Republics by promoting Almaty as a hub (much as Thai Airways International does with Bangkok as a hub for the Greater Mekong Subregion countries), major opportunities open up to develop feeder traffic into Thailand from the CAR region.

Last month, for example, Air Astana began flying to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with a twice-weekly service using an A321. It also flies to Bishkek in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Urumqi in China.

The domestic network within Kazakhstan alone comprises of 21 cities, including the political capital of Astana, a rapidly transforming city with massive construction projects under way, and Aktau, gateway to the oil and gas regions bordering the Caspian Sea.

In fact, the link between Almaty and Bangkok is one of the few flights from the entire CAR region into Southeast Asia. No other airline flies any of those routes, not even from Southeast Asia. Singapore Airlines had sought to fly to Almaty but, says Vice Minister for Transport Azat Bekturov, it wanted fifth-freedom beyond rights to points in Europe, which was politely turned down.

Mr Foster cited several reasons why the inbound/outbound travel & tourism industry will develop in Kazakhstan and the CAR countries over the next few years.

Economically, it is also looking to diversify its sources of income and reduce dependence on oil & gas. Tourism becomes a natural industry as the sparsely populated country (only 16 million people in a landmass about half the size of Australia) is rich with pristine, ecotourism spots where seeing another tourist is a real rarity.

Strategically, the country is looking to exploit its unique advantage as being at the crossroads of Eurasia, which has served it well dating all the way back to the days of the ancient Silk Road trading routes.

New hotels are opening up and investment in travel & tourism is being intensively promoted. This will mean new job opportunities for a new generation of young people born in the post-Soviet Union era, many of them fluent in English and languages other than Kazakh and Russian.

Mr Yevgeniy Nikitinskiy, chairman of the tourism industry committee, notes that Kazakhstan will also be hosting the next general assembly of the UN World Tourism Organization in October and is also planning the first meeting of all the 27 cities along the Silk Road.

All this means major opportunities for Air Astana as a link between Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Mr Nikitinskiy admitted that the Kazakhstan tourism groups had also not done much marketing in Southeast Asia due to the preoccupation with promoting tourism amongst the CAR countries.

One reason why the CAR countries are not on the radar screen in Thailand is  because visitor arrivals from there are not even listed individually on the statistical reports. As the numbers have been historically small, they get simply lumped into the “Others” category after the main source-market countries from Asia and Europe.

This makes them out of sight and hence out of mind. Changing that may be the first step towards tapping the massive potential for inbound tourism at one of the worst periods in the history of Thai tourism.

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