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Flying higher in Yangon

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Myanmar has announced plans to build a new airport outside of Yangon as it looks to raise capacity to handle a surge in passengers flying on a host of new routes.

Yangon airport, with annual capacity of 2.7 million passengers, will handle about 3 million this year. Capacity will be lifted to 5.3 million before the new airport opens.

The government called for bids from private investors in Hanthawaddy International Airport on a site 77 kilometres northeast of Yangon in an announcement in the state press last Monday.

“This is a big project,” said Nwe Ni Win Kyaw, an assistant director at the Department of Civil Aviation Department. “We need companies to do construction and management.”

Work on the new airport could start as soon as next June, she added, with an opening by the end of 2016.

Although the existing airport has been operating below capacity, Nwe Ni Win Kyaw said the government was planning ahead by expanding the terminal to handle 3.7 million passengers per year by early 2013, up from 2.7 million now.

A final upgrade to accommodate as many as 5.3 million passengers is scheduled ahead of the opening of the new airport to meet the continued rise in arrivals, she added.

The number of tourists to Yangon airport climbed 36.5% in the first four months of the year, as business and leisure travellers flocked to the country where reforms have been continuing at a rapid pace.

Total passengers through Yangon could reach 3 million this year, said Nwe Ni Win Kyaw, including about 500,000 tourists arriving and departing along with a rising number of business travellers, foreign officials and domestic passengers.

“We won’t have enough capacity,” she said.

The surge in arrivals is expected to continue next year when the SEA Games come to Myanmar in December. The following year the country is also due to host the Asean and East Asia summits, both for the first time.

In the first quarter of the year, Myanmar saw the largest growth in air arrivals in Southeast Asia, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

“The surge is unprecedented,” said Mason Florence, executive director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office. “We can count on continued growth of visitor arrivals by air to Myanmar, especially as infrastructure improves and more and more airlines establish direct routes into the country.”

In December, Myanmar opened a new airport in its capital Nay Pyi Taw – the third international terminal alongside Yangon and Mandalay –capable of handling 3 million foreign visitors a year and 2 million domestic passengers.

Korean Air and United Airlines of Bangladesh plan to begin direct flights to Yangon by the end of the year, while Pakistan International Airlines and Hong Kong Express are also reportedly looking at new routes to Myanmar.

In recent weeks, Biman Bangladesh, Qatar Airways, Taiwan’s EVA Air and All Nippon Airways have also announced they would resume connections. ANA dropped its direct service from Tokyo to Yangon 12 years ago due to a lack of demand, the same reason Qatar Airways suspended flights from Doha in early 2008.

Thai AirAsia has also reportedly applied to begin flights to Nay Pyi Taw, Mandalay and the increasingly popular temple destination Bagan by 2013.

Myanmar Airways International, meanwhile, is adding two new Airbus A320s to its fleet of four from October as it plans to start new connections from Yangon to Hong Kong and from Mandalay to Bangkok, said marketing manager Aye Mra Tha.

Despite industry optimism about tourism prospects, Myanmar continues to struggle to attract tourists during the wet season from late April to early November, forcing many airlines to reduce their schedules.

MAI declined to say what load factors it recorded in June “but passengers are increasing this year compared to last year” during the low season, said Aye Mra Tha, reflecting further opening of the economy and a new business visa-on-arrival service launched at Yangon airport last month.

The seasonal decline has been even more evident on domestic flights, said one Yangon-based tour operator, adding many had been cancelled.

Foreign business travellers made up a large percentage of new passengers, he said, but many of them don’t venture outside of Yangon.

From November, Myanmar is again expected to see a surge in arrivals, added the tour operator, “but up until then I don’t think any hotel in the country – except Yangon – will have occupancy above 50%. We need a lot more tourists to come and visit.”

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Guest Friday, 18 April 2014

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