The world at our doorsteps

With all the developing infrastructure that is taking place in the country today, regional airports have been seeing an influx of tourists and investors alike

By LYDIA NATHAN / Pic By HUSSEIN SHAHARUDDIN

THE flight map is changing again. The phrase “connecting flight” is slowly being erased as more direct flights are making its way to the smaller airports around the country.

These days, if you are based in Johor Baru (JB) and plan to celebrate Chinese New Year in Macau, all you need to do is book a direct flight from Senai International Airport straight to your gambling haven.

It is also possible to go to certain cities in China and India straight from Senai.

The same is happening in Kota Kinabalu. One can now fly direct to certain countries without having to go through any laborious layovers at connecting airports.

Penang International Airport, yet another terminal busy up north, is also transforming into its own international hub.

On Tuesday, Qatar Airways Ltd (Qatar Air) commenced its inaugural service to Penang, which marks the island as the carrier’s second destination in Malaysia, in line with the airline’s expansion plan in South-East Asia.

The new connection will see Qatar Air flying 3 times a week with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and effective July 2018, the frequency will be increased to 4 times weekly

Qatar Air’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Flight QH850, touched down at the Penang International Airport at 2.30pm, along with its Qatar delegation, led by its chief commercial officer Ehab Amin.

The service will also be Penang International Airport’s first direct long-haul flight to the west by an international airline, which is also the island’s new connection to the Middle East.

Qatar Air CEO Akbar Al Baker said plenty of efforts had gone into making the flight a reality.

“It is truly a long anticipated addition to our global network since our service started in 2001. The addition of Penang to our global network comes as part of our continued expansion plans throughout Eastern Asia,” he said.

Also present were Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and Malaysia Airport Holdings Bhd MD Datuk Mohd Badlisham Ghazali.

Lim described the event as “a historical one” as Penang has much potential as a tourist destination.

He said the island’s revenue from tourism alone is now worth RM7.2 billion, a significant increase from its worth of about RM3 billion 10 years ago.

“Since Penang has been a principled tourist destination, we are very glad for the greater connectivity that this flight will bring,” he said.

The new connection will see Qatar Air flying three times a week with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and effective July 2018, the frequency will be increased to four times weekly.

“Hopefully, by the end of the year it will become a daily flight,” Lim said during the press conference in Penang yesterday.

The Penang International Airport is also expected to undergo a reconfiguration process, particularly at the check-in counters, that would enable other airlines and Qatar Air to have a smoother process for passengers.

Lim added that Penang and Qatar are also keen on exploring and expanding the halal industry.

“Penang has a very vibrant halal industry and there is much we can learn from Qatar. Also, not many people know this, but Qatar is at the forefront of a cutting-edge environmental programme — for example, their water sanitisation process.

“Right now, Penang does not have any water rationing issues, but it is something we can learn for the future,” Lim said.

The connectivity is also expected to propel Penang as an export hub. Currently, one-third of Malaysia’s total exports are through Penang, with quite a number of international companies making Penang as the home for their headquarters.

“The avionics used in the Dreamliner is actually made in Penang, manufactured by Honeywell International Inc. This is why we need a lot of direct flights to the rest of the world,” Lim added.

Known as the “Pearl of the Orient”, Penang is also the host for carriers operating from Cathay Pacific, China Southern Airlines, Wings Air and Thai Airways, to name a few.

Its latest passenger movements had an increase of 8% year-on-year in 2017, which augurs well for the airport that is designed to take in 6.5 million passengers yearly.

Lim said in a recent report that the airport recorded 7.2 million passengers in 2017, compared to the 6.6 million in 2016.

“Most of the passengers were on international flights, with data showing such passengers increased by 10.38%, while domestic passenger movements went up by 6.27%. This shows an immensely healthy tourism industry,” he said.

The Penang International Airport and Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) were also mentioned for upgrades by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak in his Budget 2018 speech in October last year.

As the second-busiest terminal in the country, KKIA saw over 7.2 million passengers overall in 2016 and 3.65 million Chinese visitors alone in 2017.

The airport also saw an increase of 430,000 visitors compared to 2016. It now hosts Xiamen Air, that has been operating direct flights from Fuzhou, central China, to Kota Kinabalu since January 2017, The airline recently made its inaugural flight from Beijing on Jan 16, 2018.

At the moment, 14 foreign airlines arrive at KKIA daily, and on a weekly basis, it offers 178 international flights out. According to a recent report, Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun said there is more work that needs to be done for the airport to be at par with other airports in the region.

Known as the “Maldives of South- East Asia”, Sabah has long been a tourist destination with its white sandy beaches and tranquil blue waters, and its tourism industry has contributed majorly to the overall economy of the island.

Masidi said several companies have been asked to construct and build new hotels to cater to the needs of the rising number of tourists, especially from China.

“Due to the influx of China visitors, they have now accounted for up to 34%-35% of the total number of international arrivals, and more are expected,” he was quoted as saying by a local daily.

Meanwhile, more foreign faces can be spotted at the Senai International Airport as it is now the southern hub for various international flights into Malaysia.

The airport is currently undergoing yet another round of transformation, after an extensive renovation was completed a few years ago, to live up to its international status.

South Korea’s Jin Air Co Ltd recently announced the launch of its services from South Korea to JB on Jan 2, 2018, with two flights each week.

The frequency is expected to increase to four times weekly in June 2018.

Johor Tourism, Domestic Trade and Consumerism committee chairman Datuk Tee Siew Kiong said in a report that there were 72,000 tourists as at July 2017 from South Korea, with a majority of them visiting when the cold winter season hits.

“They showed interest in visiting islands, beaches and golf tourism, especially during their winter season in Korea,” he said as quoted by another daily.

Three million passengers went through the Senai gates last year, and the city is now connected by air to eight international cities — Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Surabaya, Guangzhou, Macau, Kolkata and Seoul.

Home-bred AirAsia Bhd also announced a JB-Macau route last year, acknowledging its long-term plan to expand JB as a key regional hub and gateway for business travellers and investors.

With all the developing infrastructure that is taking place in the country today and its ever-growing economy, regional airports have been seeing an influx of tourists and investors alike.

Programmes like the Belt and Road Initiative are expected to propel the economy forward and will impact a variety of industries in the country, including by means of air.

It is vital that these airports are upgraded and kept up to standards to push for higher passenger traffic, as well as to boost income.

Meanwhile, Malaysians can also expect to see changes in the tourism sector after the Budget 2018 announcement revealed plans of a new airport in Tioman Island, as well as Mukah in Sarawak.