Monday, October 22, 2007

Adventure travel: breaking new ground

Addis Ababa for the weekend anyone? Or how about Freetown, Sierra Leone, or the capital of one of the spokes on George Bush's "Axis of Evil", Teheran? Later this month, the airline Bmi (www.flybmi.com) launches 17 new routes, the majority of which can confidently be filed under "off the beaten track".

Tourists in Rwanda

Rwanda may still be recovering from the genocide of 1994, but it attracted 37,000 tourists last year

New destinations available from October 28 include the Middle Eastern cities of Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Damascus and Aleppo, as well as Khartoum, Dakar and Ankara. The airline will also fly to a number of destinations in the former Soviet Union, including Tbilisi, Georgia, Yerevan, Armenia, Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and the central Russian city of Ekaterinburg.

Technically, Bmi's routes are not entirely new. Most were previously operated by British Mediterranean Airways, the BA franchise bought by Bmi for £30 million in February.

Phil Shepherd, spokesman for the airline, said the new routes were primarily aimed at business travellers - something reflected in return fares that start at £550 for Ekaterinburg, £380 for Aleppo, £475 for Tbilisi and £461 for Teheran. "Our business model is subtly different from BA's and we have looked for routes where there is a high proportion of business travellers," he said.

Bmi's expansion coincides with research showing that travellers are heading to war-torn countries in increasing numbers. Rwanda, still recovering from the mass genocide of 1994, last year attracted 37,000 tourists, compared with fewer than 2,000 six years ago, according to the country's Office of Tourism and National Parks. Meanwhile, Afghanistan attracted more than 3,100 visitors in the first three months of this year, compared with the 9,000 visitors who headed to the country in the whole of last year, according to the country's deputy minister of information. Bosnia and Herzegovina, embroiled in a three-year civil war from 1992 to 1995, has seen visitor numbers rise from a handful of intrepid travellers to around 500,000 each year. The country's capital, Sarajevo, was featured in Michael Palin's New Europe television series, which has also encouraged travellers to be more adventurous.

This growing taste for intrepid travel and Bmi's expansion come as no surprise to Jim Louth, managing director of Undiscovered Kingdoms, which has been taking travellers to destinations with "edgier" reputations, such as Sierra Leone, Angola and Sudan, for the past three years.

"The new route announcement is encouraging and I think Bmi is being shrewd," Mr Louth said. "It is tapping into a niche market. When an established carrier goes into these places it gives people a bit more confidence." "I'm sure the company is keeping an eye on the leisure market - travellers can benefit because the premium business seats subsidise the economy sector. Some of these destinations have a reputation for being dangerous - and you have to acknowledge that - but the reality is that they offer a safe experience because local people are genuinely delighted that you have made it there."

The profile of travellers heading to these new destinations might also surprise Bmi, Mr Louth suggested. "Our typical client is in the 50-plus market and retired," he explained. "They are usually well travelled, having gone abroad after university but then been tied down with work and family. They're now after an experience - it's not just about what there is to see." Bmi recognises that a number of the destinations are still the subject of discouraging Foreign Office advice. In Sierra Leone, the FCO says, "none of the options for transferring between the international airport at Lungi and Freetown is risk-free"; it advises against all but essential travel to Lebanon.

But the airline also feels that its new routes will appeal to many travellers looking for unconventional locations. "The problem a lot of these destinations have is that people go by what they see on the news and the worst side of things. What is apparent is that there is a very attractive side to these places."

Adventure travel: breaking new ground - Telegraph