Until recently, as the relationship between Africa and China kept on growing both in depth and scope, air travel and hospitality remained relatively immune to the transformations seen, say, in agriculture, infrastructure, retail, and other sectors that are priority destinations of China’s investment. There were only a limited number of Chinese routes operated by African carriers and virtually no African route serviced by Chinese carriers. Almost everywhere across Africa, China built lots of dams, bridges, roads, a few airports, but no hotels.
Enter Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s most profitable airline according to the global aviation industry association IATA. Data from OAG, an air travel intelligence company, show that of all the few African carriers catering to the Chinese market, it is Ethiopian who captures the lion’s share in the continued growth of the number of Chinese travellers to Africa. In terms of annual capacity, it went from 100,000 in 2007 to more than 350,000 in 2015.
A key enabler of Ethiopian’s leadership is the ideal geography of its hub, Addis Ababa International airport (ADD). In just a decade, ADD has seen an acceleration of the growth of the passenger- and cargo traffic and has become the epicentre for Chinese travellers in Africa.
It is anticipated that ADD will further grow as the leading gateway to Africa for at least two other reasons. One, Air China, a leading carrier in China, is finalizing its entry or redeployment in Africa. For this development to be commercially sound in a market deemed as fragmented, it has showed an inclination for using ADD as a hub.
Two, as part of China becoming the world’s fourth largest source of outbound travel by 2020 (with 100 million outbound travellers, according to the World Tourism Organization’s projection), the number of Africa-bound Chinese tourists will increase. Again, it is anticipated that they will see ADD as a platform leading to a wide array of African destinations.
Mr Feng, who originates from Jinhua, in the Zhejiang province, eastern China, and runs a small company in the agri-business in Yaoundé Cameroon, travels to China a dozen of times per year, going through ADD on each trip: “There are definitely more and more Chinese people coming. Years ago, they used to come from just a few places [in China], now all China meets here. Then from here Chinese people spread across Africa (…) It used to be only seasonal construction workers. Now I see all type of people, families, women alone, well-to-do people. Sometimes we talk, I get ideas about destinations in Africa. So my fiancée came to visit”. Him and his fiancée – who still resides in China – have visited various places across Africa over the last eight years. He says the fact that Ethiopian Airlines hired a full Chinese cabin crew was a game changer. “My fiancée was overwhelmed! More and more Chinese newcomers in Africa means more Chinese needs, more Chinese changes“.
But Chinese travellers landing in Addis Ababa International come face to face with a huge problem in the form of extremely lengthy layovers, numerous delays, cancellations and mismanagement in a string of areas. As a result many passengers find themselves stuck, stranded with very few options to kill time. The scenes of Chinese fliers sleeping on the floor, in corridors and concourses, and virtually anywhere they possibly can has become familiar.
This situation clearly points to the lack of hotels at ADD. Of the four major airports receiving Chinese passengers (Johannesburg, Cairo, Nairobi, Addis Ababa), ADD comes out as the least equipped in hotels, both in terms of number and calibre. Currently stranded passengers must resort to a handful of international four/five star hotel chains and a sizeable offering of motel-like, average quality hotels. In absence of a commuter train, guests must still rely on taxis and buses to get to a hotel.
Re-enter Ethiopian Airlines: the company is building a 40,000 sqm, 4-four star hotel on the site of ADD. The contractor is AVIC, a Chinese company, the financial backer is Eximbank of China. Both are stated-owned companies acting as vehicles for investment and foreign trade in Ethiopia, Algeria, Tanzania and other parts of the continent. The Ethiopian Airlines hotel will be the closest hotel to ADD, reachable within minutes via a connector.
Mrs Bao, says her time at ADD became lengthier over the years as her business trips became more frequent between Dar-Es-Salam, Tanzania – where she runs a prosperous furniture business – and various cities in China. “Sometimes I have layovers of five, seven hours, other times it’s ten, twelve, even fifteen hours. I stay at the airport. I am always very wary of leaving because visas, transfers, luggage and other issues cause such a waste of time (…) I cannot wait for new things to do at the airport and new hotels where I could just walk in and out”.
In 2014 she had siblings and relatives move to Tanzania to help her with the business. “I see more and more Chinese people coming to Africa” she says, “they are coming with their habits, they will want many things where they will be spending time and money. Because of that, there will be great changes in Africa.”