Air Astana direct flights to Kazakhstan boost HK links to Central Asia
President Peter Foster says regional business and tourism ties are strengthened by direct flights between city and Kazakhstan
Tourism and business links between Hong Kong, South China and Central Asia have been strengthened following the launch last week of direct flights by Air Astana between Hong Kong and Kazakhstan.
Peter Foster, president of Air Astana, said Hong Kong was a destination in itself for travellers from Kazakhstan. But it could also be used as a transit hub for Kazakhs and other travellers from central Asia visiting southern China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia.
"Hong Kong and Macau are a draw in themselves. Hong Kong is also a very convenient and logical point of transfer between flights," he said.
Foster, who has worked at Cathay Pacific Airways and Philippine Airlines, indicated this arrangement could benefit Cathay Pacific. While there was no code-share between Air Astana and Cathay Pacific, he enjoyed "good relations" with Cathay Pacific, he said.
Foster said Air Astana's flights to Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and considered the commercial hub of the country rather than the capital Astana, would open up the country and Central Asia to Hong Kong tourists.
"Hong Kong travellers are the most adventurous of any in Asia," Foster said, adding that from Almaty tourists can fly to Uzbekistan and travel along the Silk Road to Bukhara and Samarkand. Other destinations include nine domestic cities as well as Baku in Azerbaijan, Dushanbe in Tajikistan, Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and Tbilisi in Georgia.
Flight time between Hong Kong and Almaty is between six and seven hours, while the "entire Central Asia region is within 12 hours of Hong Kong", Foster said, making Almaty a more convenient transit city than more convoluted routings.
Kazakhstan was also "excellent" for skiing, with mountainous regions in the south and north of the country that eventually lead to the Himalayas. As the ninth-largest country in the world, equivalent in area to the size of Western Europe, Kazakhstan was a nation of "breathtaking beauty", Foster said.
Extensive mineral, oil and gas deposits have fuelled exploration and development by foreign companies boosting business investment.
Traveller arrivals in Hong Kong from Kazakhstan are tiny compared with countries such as Russia, but the Air Astana flights have a potential to bring in more than 35,000 visitors per year from the region. Hong Kong is Air Astana's second destination in China after starting flights to Beijing 10 years ago. The airline also flies to Seoul and Kuala Lumpur.
Foster said the carrier operates two return flights per week between Hong Kong and Almaty using Boeing 757 aircraft than can carry 16 business and 150 economy class passengers.
"It's early days, but it's started fine," he said, with aircraft operating about 65 per cent full. The focus was on passenger traffic rather than cargo because "Kazakhstan does not export much by air" and there was an imbalance with inbound airfreight.
Flights were launched on August 28, several weeks later than planned. Foster said the delay was caused while visa-free access for both Hong Kong and Kazakh passport holders was finalised. Further flights between Hong Kong and Almaty would be added as traffic developed, but pointing to the airline's experience in Thailand, Foster said the carrier started with a twice-weekly service to Bangkok four years ago that was now a daily flight.
"We hope to add a flight frequency at the start of every new season," he said, adding that Air Astana aimed to launch flights between Almaty and Ho Chi Minh City.