Air transport, a Strategic Element of Tourism Development in the Greater Mekong Sub-region

Much progress has been seen in recent years to link by air Mekong destinations. Further development is expected with visa simplification being a major catalyst to growth of a Greater Mekong Sub-region network.

Two decades ago, only a handful of airports had international flights in the region with Bangkok – and partially Ho Chi Minh City- being the only true international hub for the entire region.

It has all changed over the last 10 years with the trend accelerating today thanks to ASEAN open skies and the development of low cost carriers. According to data from FlightmapsAnalytics/Innovata collected for the month of July 2016, they were 492 intra-Mekong routes (flights within the six Greater Mekong Sub-region member countries) linking 94 destinations. From that number, 23 GMS destinations have international flights to other GMS member states.

Flight capacity within GMS reached 9,688,000 monthly seats in July 2016 with Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Danang, Chiang Mai and Yangon offering the largest number of seats in the region. Bangkok is by far the dominant force in the region. Its market share in available seats stands in July at 21.5% while Ho Chi Minh City follows with 13.3% and Hanoi with almost 10%.

Over the last two years, more destinations are being connected internationally. Among them are Nha Trang and Danang. Nha Trang is now directly connected by scheduled flights to Kunming and by regular charters to Bangkok while in late May, Bangkok Airways launched a new service between Bangkok and Danang. The same route is now served by a four-weekly service of Vietnam Airlines.

Earlier this year, low cost carrier Thai AirAsia gained access to Luang Prabang from Don Mueang  International Airport in Bangkok and opened a few days ago a new daily flight between Bangkok and Vientiane. Nok Air and Thai Smile –both low cost/hybrid affiliates of Thai Airways International- are speeding their development in the GMS. Nok Air now flies to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon while Thai Smile is flying to Siem Reap and Yangon. “We are looking at offering more regional flights but we will only go where we feel there is a demand from local business rather than only looking at international tourist flows as we want to be profitable”, said during the Mekong Tourism Forum Woranate Laprabang, CEO Thai Smile.

Bangkok Airways is also planning to further expand in the region. As Peter Wiesner, Advisor to Bangkok Airways CEO, highlighted, Bangkok Airways was the pioneer in the region, being the first foreign airline to open Siem Reap to the world with flights to Bangkok back to the early 1990s. “We are now the largest foreign carrier in Cambodia in terms of frequencies as we offer up to 12 daily flights from Bangkok to both Phnom Penh and  Siem Reap”, he stressed at the Forum.

The airline is currently preparing the launch of a flight between Bangkok and Phu Quoc in Vietnam as well as between Bangkok and Bagan in Myanmar. The airline will also offer a third daily flight between Bangkok and Sukhothai following the upgrading of the airport’s runway lighting to ICAO standard.

“We look at serving further destinations in the region and continue to study ways to expand. Vietnam and Myanmar have a huge potential but their airports lack often the necessary Customs and Immigration clearance facilities to receive international flights”, added Peter Wiesner.

Recently, Cambodia Angkor Air launched a four-times weekly service from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh City and is planning to link again next September Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville as well as Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

“There is definitely more routes to be offer. However, we still need either a unique ASEAN visa or more flexibility in visa attribution by each country. Free movements will indeed allow people to just hop from one destination to the other in the region without being worrying about visa conditions”, estimated Desiree Bandal, Director ASEAN Affairs, AirAsia Group.

When looking at available seats capacity, there is potential for further developments for destinations in Lao PDR -Vientiane ranks for example only number 17 only. In July 2016, Vientiane had close to 92,000 available seats per month while Luang Prabang had a capacity of 37,000 seats per month.

But other destinations could also enjoy at least more scheduled regional flights as they show great potential for tourism or are already confirmed tourist destinations. Among attractive air destinations are Halong Bay, Hue and Nha Trang in Vietnam ; Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in Cambodia ; Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen and U Tapao/Pattaya in Thailand ; Bagan, Heho/Inlay Lake and Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar as well as Jinghong and Guilin in China PRC.