With a population of just over 5 million, Singapore hosts around 10 million tourists every year. Although it is a small island state, it has become the financial hub of its region and has one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world with 53 million travelers passing through last year. Ethiopian Airlines added Singapore to its flying destination list about seven months ago and now there are three flights weekly. Capital spoke to Solomon Bekele, Area Manager in Singapore about the market and tourism there.
Capital: Ethiopian Airlines has several destinations in Asia. How long has it been since it entered the Singapore market and how is it performing?
Solomon Bekele: Yes we do have a lot of destinations in the area, currently we fly to around 10 Asian countries and we have around 57 flights to these places every week. We began our Singapore service in December 2013. We have three flights to the city every week.
Capital: What is the market opportunity like?
Solomon: Well as you have seen Singapore is a very small city made up of only 712 sq kilometers. So it is a very small island. The population is around 5 million but on the other hand, Singapore has the 5th largest airport; Changi Airport. Just last year 53 million passengers passed through the city, so even though the city is small, the opportunities are very big.
One of the reasons Ethiopian Airlines decided to fly to Singapore is to make use of those opportunities. There are no other African airlines that flies here, we are the first ones. There is a lot of traffic in this area so we can also take advantage of that.
The market is really good, we just started flying to this destination and we are seeing growth. We are coordinating with Singapore Airlines with regards to a code sharing service for those who are flying to Australia. We are currently providing this for 5 cities in Australia. So it is all very promising.
Capital: The tourism sector is big here, how does Ethiopian Airlines try to take some of the experiences in Singapore and transfer that to Ethiopia’s tourism sector and how do you attempt to tap into the huge number of travelers in Singapore?
Solomon: Like I stated earlier, even though the population is very small in Singapore, an average of one Singaporean travels twice, they have a good income and they like traveling. The other advantage for us is that, the travelling population here has already visited the other common destinations such as other parts of Asia, Europe and the Americans; hence, they are looking into new and exciting destinations.
When Ethiopian Airlines decided to fly here, it also had the aim of promoting Ethiopia as an exciting destination. Through the collaboration of our airline and Ethiopian Holidays;Ethiopian Airlines’ tourism arm was established to help develop tourism in Ethiopia, we have been promoting Ethiopia as a new and exciting destination through different means for the past six months. We have participated in huge trade shows that are visited by over 50 thousand people, through that we have promoted Ethiopia and Ethiopian Airlines to the tourist community.
We have also participated in several other events to promote our country as well as through the media such as radio and newspapers.
We partner with big tour operating companies that are based here. We have hosted a couple of tour operating companies, took them to Ethiopia by covering all their costs and have showed them the different touristic areas in Ethiopia so they can comeback and promote it as a great destination here as well. And that is exactly what happened; now these companies are selling Ethiopia as part of their destination package.
Capital: What are some of the things Ethiopian Airlines looks at before venturing into flying to a new destination?
Solomon: It is different for each destination. Some places are appealing for traders and others for vacation and shopping. Each destination has a specific kind of traveler, which is one of the things we look at when we look at adding new destinations to our list. Like I stated before, when we decided to add Singapore, we saw that the trade relationship between the city and Africa has grown in the past couple of years and is continuing to grow.
Here they have Singapore Business Federation; this institution is responsible for promoting Singapore as a business and trade hub. The Federation has done a lot of promotion work in Africa and has improved the trade relationship between the continent and the city. This is good for our airline as it creates many opportunities.
In general, the number of tourists from Asia to Africa is rapidly expanding , especially from China and India. Tourists going to Africa from Singapore are also increasing in numbers.
Capital: You mentioned that you are doing a lot of promotional work to introduce Ethiopia as a choice destination for tourists, how effective has it been so far?
Solomon: The effectiveness cannot be seen overnight;you have to look at the long term effect. Here in Singapore, some do not know where Africa is let alone Ethiopia, so it really does take a lot of work and time to make people understand and to inspire them to go there. But we believe we are on the right track, the work we are doing, the questions we are asked and the reaction we get has show us that. The work we do today will inevitably bring results tomorrow.
Ethiopian Airlines’ major business is obviously the airline, tourism and destination marketing needs its own know how and skill. That is why Ethiopian airlines in cooperation with Boston Partners, established Ethiopian Holidays. Our expertise at the airline is selling tickets and services to passengers and on the other hand Ethiopian Holidays promotes the country as a great destination.
We need to wait a bit longer to see the result of the promotion work in Singapore as we have not been here very long, but, if you look at China for example, there is a huge tourist flow, meaning the work has been successful.
Capital: Compare tourism in Singapore with Ethiopia and what do you think we can learn from them?
Solomon: What has contributed to Singapore’s success, I would say is the service industry. Like some countries they do not export oil or have any natural resources. They just provide impeccable service that is needed by the region.
The attention they give to service is really something to look up to. Tourists that go to other places from here expect the same standard of service else where. We all know the situation the service industry is in in Ethiopia. We need to understand that service does not just mean when a tourist is in a hotel, it starts from the airport and throughout the trip and finally until they go back to their country. This I believe is something Ethiopia needs to learn from Singapore. We need to transfer the skill of providing quality service to Ethiopia.
Capital: Singapore has a little above 5 million people yet it hosts over 10 million tourists every year. Ethiopia has a population of over 80 million and yet has a very low tourist flow. Besides the issue of quality service, what other challenge is tourism facing in Ethiopia?
Solomon: There are many reasons why the tourism sector faces challenges in Ethiopia besides the service issue, it could be with regards to policy or with the way we market the country and what it has to offer. Marketing a destination needs a big budget, it needs expertise, we need to invite professionals to come visit our country so that they can go back and talk about it, and we need to promote it through the media.
Different stakeholders need to get involved. We in coordination with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have been doing a lot of work. And then there is Et Holiday, they work with us through creating and selling packages.
Capital: Do you work with different tour operators or is Et Holiday your only partner?
Solomon: Ethiopian Airlines has different ticket sale channels. One is through our office the other is to go to other travel agencies. The airline is accessible through both ways. It is the same way when we sell holidays. Ethiopian Holidays is like our office, just like the way we sell tickets trough our office, we sell holiday packages, this does not mean other tour operating companies can’t do the same and work with us, they can.
For example, the last couple of months two tour operators brought with them tour groups that took a group of 30 to 40 people from Singapore to Ethiopia. So others are also participating. Ethiopian Holiday is there to complement and strengthen tour operating businesses as a whole. We are open to working with everybody.