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Transportation

Kansai Airport to reduce reliance on South Korea routes

Operator inks deals to add Moscow, Zurich and Doha flights

OSAKA -- Kansai Airport near Osaka is launching more flights to Europe and the Middle East in an effort to branch out beyond Asia, which now makes up 91% of its international traffic.

Kansai Airport relies more heavily on Asian routes compared with other Japanese airports. Flights to and from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong alone account for 76% of international traffic, partly because the gateway aggressively courted Asian players for a budget-carrier-only terminal that opened in 2012.

But the airport is now looking to diversify, especially after fraying ties between Tokyo and Seoul led to numerous cancellations this summer. The airport plans to operate long-haul flights to and from at least 19 cities by summer 2020, up from the current 15.

"We are working hard to attract not just Asian flights, but those to Europe and the U.S. as well," said Yoshiyuki Yamaya, CEO of Kansai Airports. The company took over the airports' operations from the Japanese government in 2016.

The operating company offers discounted landing and parking fees for new routes. It is also analyzing trends among foreign tourists to the greater Osaka region to convince foreign airlines to start flying into the gateway.

Negotiations are ongoing with carriers in Europe, the U.S. and Oceania, said Executive Vice President Gregory Jamet.

Kansai International Airport relies on Asia for 91% of its international traffic. (Photo by Kento Awashima)

The strategy is producing results. Russian carrier Aeroflot will start operating a connection to Moscow next June after a 16-year absence. It will be the second route serving a Russian city after Vladivostok.

Flights to Moscow will utilize the Airbus A330 passenger jet, which seats 229 people. Four round trips will be scheduled per week, and tourists are expected to form much of the traffic.

Swiss International Air Lines, or Swiss, will launch flights to Zurich, Switzerland, starting in March. The next month, Turkish Airlines will establish connections to Istanbul and Qatar Airways will start service to Doha.

Japan has seen an uptick in tourists from Western countries along with visitors from Asia. There were 147,175 travelers from Europe passing through Kansai Airport during the first six months of the year, a 10% increase from a year earlier. American fliers jumped 20% to 111,712.

Osaka's hosting of the World Expo in 2025, and plans to build one of Japan's first resort casinos in the city, have raised its profile as an international destination. A Swiss representative said if the city continues to grow its infrastructure, demand for business and first-class travelers will also grow.

The airline business, however, is often at the mercy of geopolitical and economic conditions. For example, relations between Japan and South Korea soured after Tokyo announced restrictions on certain semiconductor exports in July.

South Korean travelers to Kansai fell 10% that month from a year earlier to 145,075 people. South Korea's T'way Air, Air Busan and Eastar Jet all suspended flights.

Tourists from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong stayed on average three to seven days in the April-June period while those from the U.S. and Europe stayed over 10 days, according to data from the Japan Tourism Agency. Jamet said that long-term vacationers tend to travel to the Sanyo region in western Honshu or Wakayama Prefecture on the Pacific Coast, spreading the economic impact to broader regions.

But just because there are more long-term travelers, that does not necessarily mean more of them go to rural areas. "Local communities need to work closer together more than before to cultivate tourism resources," said Munenori Nomura, an economics professor at Kwansei Gakuin University.

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