Carrier traces a modern Silk Road

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2005, 12:00am

Hong Kong is an East Asia hub for travel to Gulf destinations

GULF AIR HAS been flying the Hong Kong-Bangkok-Bahrain route for a quarter of a century and is akin to 'a modern Silk Road', according to Kay Yew Koh, Gulf Air's area manager for Hong Kong and northeast Asia.

'I see people from the Far East using Hong Kong as their hub to travel to the Middle East and beyond for business and for pleasure,' he said.

'We can feed people from Taiwan, Japan, Korea and mainland China through Hong Kong.'

Gulf Air's Hong Kong business has been growing at a steady clip. As a result, larger aircraft - the Airbus A340 - were put on the route in 2000, allowing for an increase of nearly 50 per cent in seating capacity. The larger aircraft also increased cargo capacity to 18 tonnes.

The only blip on the radar screen has been Sars, which forced the airline to suspend service to the city for nine weeks in 2003. Otherwise, there has been little turbulence along the way.

Mr Koh said passenger traffic had grown in the low double digits for the past six to seven years as the travel market in Hong Kong catered more for business travellers heading to the Gulf and leisure travellers drawn to exotic destinations such as the Middle East.

He estimates that half of the traffic is headed for Bangkok and the rest continues on to Bahrain or Abu Dhabi, both of which are served by direct flights from Bangkok. Many passengers then change planes, heading for various destinations in the Middle East, Europe and even North Africa. About a third of passengers are business travellers. The rest are leisure travellers, students and people visiting friends and relatives.

'Gulf Air has always been a very popular carrier with students from Hong Kong studying in Britain because of its pricing,' Mr Koh said. 'Unlike some of our competitors, who spend a lot on building their brand and then charge a premium for their seats, Gulf Air has a lower marketing profile and prefers to give it back to the consumer through lowers fares.'

About 55 per cent of revenue on the Hong Kong run comes from passenger traffic. The other 45 per cent comes from cargo, an area where Mr Koh sees the most potential for future growth.

'I see the cargo potential continuing to grow,' he said. 'There is limited growth potential on the passenger side because supply is expanding in relation to demand as new carriers start serving Hong Kong.'

A largely untapped market with considerable growth potential is tourism from the Middle East.

'We have found that very few Middle Eastern tourists come to Hong Kong,' Mr Koh said.

'Their favourite destinations in Asia are Malaysia and Thailand.

'We have tried to interest the Hong Kong Tourism Board in more actively promoting Hong Kong as a destination for tourists from the Gulf and the Middle East, but their priorities are elsewhere.'

According to the tourism board, visitors from the Middle East account for only a tiny fraction of arrivals. The number of visitors from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates was 91,030 last year, or a mere 0.4 per cent of total arrivals. A majority, or 59 per cent, came for business.

With the opening of Hong Kong's Disneyland and Macau's booming tourism sector, Mr Koh believes it is time for tourism officials here to give that part of the world a second look. He believes the two cities could be marketed as a joint destination.

'We see this as missing a great opportunity for a couple of reasons,' he said.

'First, for Gulf tourists, the peak season to travel is the summer season, which is the low season for Hong Kong's hotel industry. Secondly, Gulf tourists stay for longer periods - of between one and two weeks - and they travel in large families and have high spending power.'

While Hong Kong will continue to be airline's hub for southern China, it expects to start service to the mainland next year.