Growing up in South Africa there were a few things of which you could be certain: like it or not, weekends would be spent outside enjoying a braai (barbeque); the Springboks were the best rugby team in the world; and come the mid-year winter school holidays, your entire family would head off for the annual pilgrimage to the Kruger National Park (KNP).
What would these mid-year breaks have been without 5am game drives, during which an elephant could be spotted while sipping a morning coffee, or where an evening sundowner could be enjoyed to the sound of roaring lions just beyond the campsite’s fence?
The KNP’s popularity has only bloomed under South Africa’s 15-year democracy, as has the country’s tourism industry, which is today worth more than the gold upon which SA’s economy was originally founded.
Situated largely in Mpumalanga province (‘the land of the rising sun’), the KNP and its surrounding attractions (including God’s Window, Blyde River Canyon and Pilgrims Rest) draw ever growing numbers of both domestic and foreign tourists. In addition, the new modern highway linking the province’s capital, Nelspruit, to Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo, has dramatically boosted cross-border trade and industry.
Today, locals in Nelspruit think nothing of popping across the border for the day to enjoy prawns and a cold beer in one of Maputo’s many restaurants and bars, while Mozambicans head to Nelspruit to take advantage of top private healthcare and schools, not to mention the shopping.
So it should come as no surprise then that the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA), just outside Nelspruit, has big plans to boost traffic into this growing region, which tourists love due to its easy blend of modernity and rustic African charm.
“The first thing that people notice is the airport’s unique African bush design. Visitors often remark that they immediately feel like they have arrived in the Kruger National Park when they see the terminal building from the runway as they land,” remarks Marius Nel, KMIA’s managing director.
Despite its rustic exterior, the 3.1km runway can handle widebody aircraft, including B747s. Once on the ground, the compact airport ensures that operations are highly efficient, allowing passengers to quickly be on their way to the nearest KNP gate, just a 15-minute drive away.
The airport has already increased air travel into the region by 221% since it opened in 2002, but many opportunities to grow this further remain.
Currently, domestic carrier Airlink operates into KMIA from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban; Pelican Air offers flights to the holiday spot of Vilanculous in Mozambique and Interlink Airlines has connections to Johannesburg and Maputo. The airport has also proven popular with charters bringing in incentive groups from Europe and the US and many celebrities have flown their private jets in there to avoid the four-hour drive from Johannesburg, including Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Ernie Els.
KMIA is looking at increasing both frequency and capacity into the region by developing more feeder traffic from other cities in Africa, with a wider range of carriers, as well as increasing long-haul markets.
Route development consultants, ASM, has been working with the airport for the past five years and its chief operating officer, Tony Griffiths, says: “There is the strong belief that the airport will be able to get regular frequency to a long-haul market by 2010.”
The target markets for this long-haul service are the UK (traditionally SA’s biggest source market); Germany (the second biggest source of arrivals) and Italy (which is a large market to other African countries).
Griffiths believes a future long-haul services could originate from London, Manchester, Milan, Rome, Munich or Düsseldorf but stresses that this would most likely need to operate as a beach-and-bush operation.
“There is a view that the arrival of the B787 into the market and interest in South Africa post-World Cup means that there would be increased interest to serve KMIA direct, but tagged onto another point, such as Cape Town, Mozambique or Mauritius,” remarks Griffiths. The traditional ‘bush’ experience tends to be for three to four days, which could be followed by 10 days at a beach destination. This would also cut out the need to fly into Johannesburg, which is not recognised as a leading leisure destination, and the long drive from the Highveld down to Mpumalanga.
There are, however, major challenges associated with this type of operation. “The big challenge lies in getting tour operators to change their thinking when it comes to designing their programmes,” says Griffiths. “This is currently fixed on flying into Johannesburg, employing a local ground operator and setting a very structured tour that incorporates the drive to KNP. Being able to break the tour by flying direct into KMIA or between the points avoids days spent travelling, but the challenge is around matching the aviation flying with the ground product.”
Nel adds that the current lack of domestic competition to KMIA means airfares are high, which is stifling growth. The now defunct Nationwide did serve KMIA from Johannesburg, breaking the monopoly on the route, so its disappearance was not good news for the airport.
“Losing Nationwide was a blow for us when they pulled out in April 2008, as they had communicated to us that we were their most profitable route,” says Nel.
However, he is optimistic that there will soon again be competition on the Johannesburg route. “We are proactively targeting the low-cost operators and believe that we will get an LCC service by the end of 2009,” he remarks.
The arrival of an additional local carrier would be in line with Nelspruit’s preparations for an influx of visitors in the run-up to and during the 2010 event. As a host city, Nelspruit is building a brand new stadium, where four matches will be played and Nel believes the coverage that the city and its surrounds will attract during the World Cup will be vital to its future tourism growth.
“For the region, 2010 will really be an opportunity to showcase the destination and our offerings to a wider range of visitors, as well as the television audiences all over the world. There will of course be more traffic through the airport, up to 600 passengers an hour, but 2010 is really about spreading the word about the region,” says Nel.
The hope is that once the world sees the quality of Mpumalanga’s attractions, they too will be inspired to make the trip of a lifetime – and that they will choose to do it by flying into KMIA.
This article is featured in Routes News 2009 Issue 3