YANGON -- Asian airlines are looking to expand to Myanmar, eyeing not just business passengers but also the rising middle class there, who are beginning to travel for pleasure.
Budget carrier HK Express on Sept. 1 kicked off a direct Hong Kong-to-Yangon route that flies four times a week. Other carriers, such as Myanmar National Airlines, already provide such service, but the Hong Kong-based airline has kept its prices the lowest. The initial fare debuted at 598 Hong Kong dollars ($77) one way and some tickets now sell for as little as HK$120. The very first flight was around 90% full, mainly with Hong Kong consumers who are beginning to become interested in visiting the Southeast Asian country.
Air connections to Myanmar had been overwhelmingly with countries it has strong economic ties with, such as Thailand and Singapore. But with the smooth transition of political power after the inauguration of the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, new routes serving other areas are being added.
On Aug. 3, Emirates Airlines started offering a daily Dubai-Yangon-Hanoi route, marking the first large Mideast airline to provide regular, direct service to Myanmar. Airlines in such places as Laos and Bhutan are also looking to enter the fray.
The type of passenger who travels these international routes to Myanmar has changed. Foreign businessmen had been the main fliers, but in recent years newly prosperous, middle-class Myanmarese have been targeted.
Thai Lion Air, a unit of Indonesian carrier Lion Air, launched in July a Yangon-Bangkok flight with a one-way fare of 980 baht ($28), a price that is only a fraction that charged by Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways and just half that charged by competing budget carriers, in an attempt to capture the market for tourists from Myanmar.
One 61-year-old Myanmar native who runs a precious-stones trading business says that he goes to Bangkok once a month for such activities as shopping. Flying round trip on Thai budget carrier Nok Air for less than $100, he says he often brings his two daughters with him.
Major airlines that have already been flying to Myanmar are also adding flights. Singapore's Jetstar Asia will operate its current 10 flights a week between the city-state and Myanmar until December, and then add three more. Vietnam's VietJetAir is looking to add more flights to its Yangon-Ho Chi Minh City route as well.
Japan's ANA Holdings, which will start offering a flight to Yangon from Narita Airport in 2012, is working with the Burmese business conglomerate Shwe Than Lwin to develop new international routes serving the country.