The national carrier of Mauritius is shifting the focal point of its South-east Asian routes down south, from Kuala Lumpur (KL) to Singapore.
The move will be the backbone of the Indian Ocean island-state's dreams of strengthening the ties it has with Singapore, and even boost inter-continental exchanges between Asia and Africa.
Arjoon Suddhoo, chairman of Air Mauritius, said in an exclusive interview with The Business Times on Tuesday: "We've been flying to Kuala Lumpur for about 15 years now, but Changi Airports offers us a new opportunity, and this is the right time to exploit it."
This means that, instead of flying direct to Kuala Lumpur from Mauritius, the carrier's only direct route to South-east Asia will be through Singapore. The airline will serve 18 cities in 10 countries from Singapore; it will fly to Kuala Lumpur or Taipei, with partner airlines serving the rest.
Several factors worked in concert to nudge Mauritius towards using Singapore as its South-east Asian gateway. Firstly, Dr Suddhoo said, the "marketing might" of Changi Airport is stronger than that in KL, which will boost Mauritius as a travel destination for Asian travellers.
Mauritian reports said that Changi Airport had offered incentives to Air Mauritius, including a S$2 million financial contribution and preferential rates on airport rates; it will also help promote Mauritius and Air Mauritius through channels such as fairs and roadshows.
Lim Ching Kiat, senior vice-president for market development at the Changi Airport Group (CAG), said in response to BT queries: "CAG is delighted to collaborate with Air Mauritius on marketing initiatives in our respective catchment areas to enhance connectivity between Africa & Asia. We are working on the commercial details of this partnership. Unfortunately, we do not have anything to share at this point."
On its part, Mauritius will be marketing Singapore and other Asian destinations to its travellers, said Dr Suddhoo.
Another factor behind Air Mauritius's move to Singapore was the growing interest from travellers in the city-state. Air Mauritius will thus ply routes onwards to Chinese cities such as Shanghai from Singapore, though it will maintain direct flights to these cities.
"We believe there's a market for twin destinations, where Chinese can come and stop over in Changi and Singapore, and then move on to Mauritius for the sun and the sand," said the chairman.
With flights fully booked these few weeks, he is confident about demand for the carrier's flights to and from Singapore. He aims to increase the thrice-weekly flight - currently flown on A330s - to five times a week by year's end. The airline is also exploring code-share flights with Singapore Airlines.
"We're even prepared to lease another aircraft if demand is strong," he said.
The Mauritian government has been quick to start strengthening its bilateral and inter-continental ties after Air Mauritius commenced its inaugural flight to Singapore on March 11.
The first official flight - the one bearing a heavyweight Mauritian delegation led by the country's deputy prime minister Charles Gaëtan Xavier-Luc Duval - touched down at Changi Airport on Tuesday morning, and were greeted by Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.
Later, at a forum attended by Singapore's representatives from the business sector and diplomatic corps, Mr Xavier-Luc Duval unveiled the "Asia-Africa Air Corridor", an initiative aimed at utilising Mauritius and Singapore as air hubs to foster new air routes that will move goods, capital and people between Asia, Africa and beyond.
He named Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and Malaysia as being among the top investors in Africa; China was the continent's largest, with trade amounting to US$310 billion in 2015.
Singapore is thus a good partner for Mauritius to strengthen its ties with, considering the city-state's proximity to major economies such as China and India.
Already, the Mauritian government is exploring possible collaborations with the Singaporean authorities in the oil and gas, bunkering, port and education sectors, said Mr Xavier-Lac Duval.
He told reporters: "Singapore is next to an emerging economic region. Everybody's seeing Africa as a growth pole, and Mauritius is just sitting off the coast of Africa.
"We want to connect to Singapore, and through this air corridor, connect Africa and Asia."
This article was first published on March 16, 2016.
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