January 23, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Japan forging stronger air links with Africa

SOICHI INAI, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is pushing for stronger air links to Africa as it tries to catch up with China and South Korea in tapping the resources and infrastructure development opportunities in the world's "last business frontier."    

     "Africa is no longer a distant place," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Jan. 13 after signing an agreement to establish direct flights between Japan and Ethiopia during a visit to the East African country.

     At present there are no direct flights between Japan and Africa. The new agreement will allow Ethiopian Airlines to begin flying directly between the capital of Addis Ababa and Narita Airport as early as this summer.

     This will be Japan's first direct air connection to a country in sub-Saharan Africa and the only active route to the continent. EgyptAir suspended its Cairo-Narita service following recent political unrest. Japan Airlines used to offer flights between Narita and Cairo, but the service ended in August 1990.

     Traditionally, most Japanese traveling to Africa went via Europe, but many now fly to Dubai on Emirates Airline and change planes there. The airline has direct flights to 25 African cities.

Into Africa

Ethiopian Airlines is a major African carrier, with international flights to 48 cities on the continent alone. It hopes to tap demand for passenger and cargo transport between Japan and Africa with its fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners and other jets, using Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport as its hub.     

     How much demand there is is an open question. Very few Japanese companies operate in Ethiopia; even major concerns such as Toyota Motor have a limited presence in Africa, mostly in South Africa and Egypt. Few Japanese business people have ever even visited Ethiopia. The agrarian country offers few readily apparent commercial opportunities, aside from its famous coffee.

     A mere 2,012 Japanese visited Ethiopia in 2008, the last year such data was published. Japan receives even fewer Ethiopians: 541 entered the country in 2012, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. This modest traffic makes regular flights to and from Ethiopia economically impractical for high-cost Japanese carriers like JAL and All Nippon Airways.

     "We are interested in Africa," JAL President Yoshiharu Ueki said at a regular news conference Wednesday, "but we plan to wait a little while before we start examining" the possibility of launching African routes.

     The Japanese government may need to think more strategically when it comes to Africa. The region has much potential, with the population forecast to double to 2 billion by 2050. Leaving the forging of ties to the profit motive of companies like JAL and ANA may put the Japanese business community as a whole at a disadvantage against their South Korean and Chinese rivals.

     Both countries are well ahead of Japan in building bridges with Africa. Korean Air began service between Seoul and Nairobi, Kenya in June 2012.

     No Chinese airlines offer nonstop flights to Africa, but African airlines do -- a sign of China's growing importance to Africa. Ethiopian Airlines serves four Chinese cities and one in South Korea.

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