Sub-Saharan Africa gets first direct Japan flights in business travel & tourism boost
Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to receive a business travel and tourism boost from Japan with Ethiopian Airlines’ direct service which will take about 15 hours, as compared to the experience of previous Japanese travelers to Africa who have flown via European airport hubs or through the Middle East, typically connecting in Dubai, with such journeys usually taking between 21 and 23 hours.
The new direct flight by Ethiopian Airlines from Japan to Sub-Saharan Africa using the ultramodern Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft will take about 15 hours, as compared to earlier flights, routed typically through European airport hubs or the Middle East, that usually took between 21 and 23 hours.
As Japan’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Kazuhiro Suzuki finds that briefing Japanese businesspeople seeking opportunities in Ethiopia is becoming a daily occurrence. From April, the flow of visitors could grow, after Ethiopian Airlines started the only direct flight between Sub-Saharan Africa and Japan.
The service has been a decade in the works, but it comes at an opportune moment, as Japan ramps up its investment in Africa.
While China’s interest in the continent has dominated headlines for the past decade, Japan has quietly been building its position. Japanese companies and government agencies actually invested three times as much in project finance deals over the last 10 years as their Chinese counterparts. Currently most Japanese investment is outside Ethiopia but those such as Suzuki say it’s a matter of time, especially with the new flight, before Ethiopia gets more attention.
“Almost every businessperson I meet coming to Ethiopia is surprised – they don’t realise the level of the booming economy,” Suzuki says. “Currently Ethiopia’s needs are more low-tech but sooner or later it will need more high technologies, so I’m optimistic about the role for Japan.”
Previous Japanese travelers to Africa have flown via European airport hubs or through the Middle East, typically connecting in Dubai. Such journeys usually take between 21 and 23 hours, whereas Ethiopian Airlines’ new service will take about 15 hours.
“A big selling point is how Tokyo business staff could catch an evening flight after work and arrive in Addis the next morning and start work,” Suzuki says. “Or they could catch a connecting flight to another African country and be working there by afternoon.”
For Japanese businesses already operating in Ethiopia, the new flight using the ultramodern Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft will make it easier for headquarters staff and specialists to visit and bring their expertise.
“Currently, due to the longer flight time it’s difficult for them to arrange schedule-wise,” says Noriyuki Murabe, senior deputy general manager for Addis Ababa-based Marubeni Corporation, which trades in coffee, construction machinery and aeroplane components.
“Also, psychologically many Japanese think Ethiopia is very far from Japan, and may be more likely to come with a quicker flight.”
The flight should also benefit tourism between the countries.
While tourism may take time to develop, business is a more immediate prospect. During the last five years Japanese investors increased project finance commitments in Africa by a “staggering” 576%, according to the global law firm Linklaters. This culminated with USD 3.54bn invested in 2014, mainly through a large focus on energy and infrastructure projects in Morocco.
“Japan has taken a much quieter and below the radar approach than China but has made significant inroads, particularly in countries such as Nigeria and Mozambique,” says John Maxwell, head of the Japan office for Linklaters.
Amid the fanfare observers note that the thrice-weekly direct flight between Bole International Airport and Tokyo Narita International Airport will have to refuel at Hong Kong. Others question whether passenger demand for the flights will be adequate.
“That offers huge comparative advantage in terms of labour costs,” says Suzuki, who will take the inaugural 21st April light from Addis Ababa to Tokyo.
“Better to come earlier to invest – that way you will get more fruit.”