Traveling to Africa used to be a nightmare for Yan Kai, the senior manager of a machinery company in Beijing in the past because it involved flight changes, lengthy stopovers and extensive time delays. Yan, however, says that things have improved considerably as burgeoning trade and investment ties between China and Africa have prompted airlines from both sides to establish more connections. "My first trip to Africa was in 1997 to Accra in Ghana," Yan says. "The trip took nearly 35 hours and had long, expensive stopovers in Amsterdam and Paris. Since 2000, the situation has improved considerably. Middle Eastern carriers such as Emirates Group and Qatar Airways Co QCSC now provide several travel and transit options to Africa."
Better ties between China and Africa will help stimulate bilateral trade as more secondary cities establish air links. Currently most of the flights to China operate from African cities such as Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Johannesburg. "There has been a steady growth in the number of Chinese people traveling to African countries and vice-versa," Yan says, adding that more connections with other African and Chinese cities are needed. "China is a major trading partner for many African nations. Coupled with the growing number of tourists and air traffic between the two sides, it will witness steady growth," says Elijah Chingosho, secretary-general of the African Airlines Association. The association, based in Ghana, is a trade grouping that fosters ties between Chinese and African carriers.
"Our estimates are that air traffic between Africa and Asia will grow by 8.1 percent every year until 2030," he says. International air traffic to and from Africa has been growing by about 6 percent every year over the last decade, while domestic air traffic in Africa grew by 12 percent annually, the African Airlines Association said in its 2013 annual report. According to Chingosho, the Africa-China aviation market will be one of the fastest intercontinental air travel growth markets in the long term. It is also the reason why several African carriers are looking to expand their presence in China, he says. "African carriers such as Air Algerie SpA, Air Mauritius Ltd, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways Ltd, TAAG Angola Airlines and South African Airways are all planning more flights to China," he says, adding that Chinese carriers will follow suit soon.
Chingosho says that Hainan Airlines Co Ltd's decision to start direct flights between Beijing and Dar es Salaam, capital of Tanzania, was a breakthrough for the aviation sector from both sides. The Chinese airline recently announced that it plans to start a service in August that will fly between Beijing, Mumbai and Nairobi three times a week. According to the African Airlines Association, many African airlines have become more active in the China-Africa aviation sector. Many may have added capacity and more flights to China this year based on the growing sales, it says.
Ethiopian Airlines was the first African carrier and the fourth in the world to fly to China. Since its first flight some 40 years ago in the 1970s, China has become a key destination for the African carrier. It now operates nonstop daily flights from Addis Ababa to Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Hong Kong. It plans to start flights to Shanghai from next month. "We have grown considerably from one weekly flight to China more than 40 years ago to more than 28 weekly flights and provide seamless connections across Africa," says Tewolde Gebremariam, chief executive officer of Ethiopian Airlines Group. "Our network in China has been growing steadily along with the growth in trade, investment and tourism between China and Africa," he says. "The direct flights from Shanghai to Africa along with the existing connections will help promote increased mobility of people and goods between the two sides."
Shanghai will be Ethiopian's 80th international destination. With the new flight, Shanghai will be connected to 66 cities across Africa through Ethiopian's main hub in Addis Ababa. Gebremariam says Chinese destinations are important gateways for China-Africa business relations and the company plans to further improve its market position in China. Ethiopian is currently regarded as one of the fastest growing airlines in Africa and operates in 47 African and 79 international destinations across five continents.
Mbuvi Ngunze, chief operating officer of Kenya Airways, another fast-growing African carrier, says that while it is difficult to estimate the actual number of passengers traveling between China and Africa, there are clear indications that passengers are becoming more diverse. "Apart from business people and labour, there has been a steady increase in leisure travelers, a segment that holds immense potential," he says. "Better air linkages not only provide convenient connectivity and better access, but also allow people to have more choices," he says. "When you sell end-to-end products to clients, you also drive the cooperation through various departments including tourism, investment and trade," Ngunze says.
Leisure travel, especially tourism, has become a new trend in bilateral ties. Tourist flows to Kenya, South Africa, Mauritius and Seychelles, especially from China, have been clocking up steady annual growth. Ninety-seven million Chinese travelled abroad in 2013, 14 million more than in the year before, according to the China National Tourism Administration. The number is expected to exceed 100 million this year with more Chinese tourists heading to Africa. More than 50,000 Chinese tourists visited Kenya last year - and 42,000 visited Mauritius. Andre Viljoen, CEO of Air Mauritius, says that the growing numbers have prompted the carrier to add more flights to China this year.
According to the Mauritius-based newspaper L'Express, Air Mauritius plans to add an additional weekly flight to Beijing from Port Louis in July. Viljoen also said Air Mauritius would increase the seat capacity on its flights to China. The carrier expects overall tourist numbers of more than 146,000 this year, compared with 93,000 last year. Although African carriers are pushing ahead with expansion in China, they face several hurdles. The biggest challenge is finding suitable slots at airports. Most of the major airports in China are too crowded and hence unable to offer new slots to newcomers, says Mbuvi Ngunze, chief operating officer of Kenya Airways.
"We have realized that the real challenge is not about building more airports in China, although the existing ones are really busy, but more about how to solve the bottlenecks and make the slot allocation more efficient in Chinese airports," he says. There are also no suitable mechanisms to connect domestic flights efficiently with international ones and simplify the overall processing procedures, experts say. "We (African carriers) need to be careful about leveraging our regional hub status and do this in such a manner that it ensures adequate returns for Chinese investors," he says.
Chinese carriers, on the other hand, after making a strong start, seem to have slowed their pace in Africa. In December, a notice from the Civil Aviation Administration of China said that Hainan Airlines had submitted an application for expansion of operations in Africa. If the application is approved, it will mark the return of a major Chinese carrier to Africa after several years of absence. HNA Group, China's fourth-largest aviation group and the parent company of Hainan Airlines, recently indicated that it had shifted its focus from Europe and North America to emerging markets like Africa. Chen Feng, chairman of HNA Group, said recently that the company was focusing more on lesser-known routes, especially in Africa, and would make the necessary investment to grow the business in these areas.
In its application HNA said it sought permission to operate flights on the Beijing-Mumbai-Nairobi route. It used to have three routes to Africa - Beijing-Cairo, Beijing-Abu Dhabi-Khartoum and Beijing-Dubai-Luanda. The routes were stopped, many for security reasons. "Interaction and communication between China and Africa is growing rapidly and it is important for a Chinese airline to be a part of the African market," says Liu Jichun, deputy manger of the marketing department at HNA. "We expect the Beijing-Mumbai-Nairobi route to closely connect people in China, India and Kenya and also add to passenger flows."