Air Astana, the national carrier of Kazakhstan, is embarking on an ambitious plan to strike a better balance of passenger traffic on its Bangkok-Almaty route now heavily biased toward Kazakhs. The airline wants to attract about 5,000 Thai passengers to travel to the central Asian republic this year, up from about 3,000 last year.
It is particularly keen to significantly lift the number of Thai tourists, in addition to skilled Thai workers who fly to Kazakhstan to work for petroleum projects in the Caspian Sea. They now represent the bulk of Thai passengers the airline carries.
About 70-80% of Air Astana passengers flying between the Thai capital and the largest city in Kazakhstan are Kazakh tourists.
The airline, 51% owned by the Kazakh government and 49% by the British defence and aerospace company BAE, last year carried 16,500 passengers on the Bangkok-Almaty sector.
But there were only about 100 Thai tourists who actually went for short holidays in Kazakhstan, largely due to the prohibitive costs and limited knowledge of what the republic has had to offer in terms of attractions.
”There is a strong imbalance in traffic which is heavy on the Kazakh side and we want to make a correction with more Thai passengers,” said Dhanwanthrie Goonetilleke, Air Astana’s regional general manager for Far East and Australia.
He said the challenges were for Air Astana to make the republic better known as an emerging tourist destination among Thais and the costs more affordable.
The airline is doing its part by offering low fares _ about 21,000 baht net for a return ticket on the economy class for the Bangkok-Almaty which takes six hours 45 minutes to fly _ and helping facilitate visa applications.
Mr Goonetilleke said the airline was working with tour operators to make the packages for Thais more appealing in terms of prices and combining a Kazakhstan visit with Russia, which is more popular among Thais, with connecting flights in Almaty.
Due to the limited accommodation infrastructure, a standard room in a five-star hotel in Almaty costs an average of $300, half of what it used to be, as new hotels are becoming available, the Bangladesh-born airline manager said.
However, a room in a three-star hotel in Almaty, which is being offered by a tour agency, costs $180 per night, still relatively expensive for tour packages.
A five-day, four-night Kazakhstan package tour costs around 60,000 baht per head.
Air Astana, founded in September 2001, also wants to use Bangkok for transit passengers, especially workers and businessmen, transferring to Kazakhstan.
Pending the success of its traffic-stimulating plan, Air Astana plans to increase its Bangkok-Almaty services to four flights a week from November this year from three currently, he noted.
Air Astana began to operate scheduled flights on the route in October last year, using Boeing 757-200 and 767-300ER, after operating on a charter basis for quite some time.
Earlier this month, the airline agreed to place firm orders for six Airbus A320s and three Boeing 787-8s, and exercised options for three A320 and three 787-9 aircraft.
The airline operates on 25 domestic routes within Kazakhstan and 21 international routes from its hubs in Almaty, Astana and Atyrau.