Mon, 29 Dec 2003

Lion flies to Vietnam amid rising trade

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Local budget airline Lion Air has launched its first flight to Vietnam, optimistic that the direct route from Jakarta would be lucrative given the strengthening business ties between the two countries.

Lion's MD-82 aircraft flies to Ho Chi Minh City four times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Lion charges US$334 for a return ticket, excluding airport tax and insurance.

Each flight will carry 152 passengers who will have to transit in Changi Airport, Singapore without changing aircraft.

Public relations manager of the airline Hasyim Irsal Alhabsi said during the launch of the flight over the weekend that passengers from Vietnam and Indonesia alike would benefit from having a low cost carrier flying to regional destinations.

"Lion Air has pioneered cheap domestic flights in Indonesia and now we are expanding the opportunity to fly abroad," he told reporters.

He said that the direct flight would benefit from the visa- free agreement signed in June by President Megawati Soekarnoputri and Vietnam's President Tran Duc Luong.

The Jakarta-Ho Chi Minh City route is now being served seven days a week by Indonesian airlines as the country's flag carrier Garuda Indonesia has also launched flights three days a week on the route.

The last flight by an Indonesian airlines to Vietnam was made six years ago prior to the economic crisis.

A Vietnamese tourism agency said the number of Indonesian visitors to Vietnam had increased significantly since visas had been waived for Indonesian travelers on Dec. 4. Vietnam is expected to receive between 40,000 to 50,000 visitors from Indonesia next year, of whom 17,500 are expected to travel by air.

Indonesian Ambassador to Vietnam Ayub Muchsin said that the opening of the direct flight was timely.

"The direct flight will benefit from intensifying trade between Indonesia and Vietnam," he said.

He said that one indication of the strengthening trade ties was the number of Vietnamese requesting business visas at the Indonesian Embassy in Hanoi. "There are about 1,200 people per month," he said.

The ambassador said that the trade volume between the two countries had also grown over the years. "As of September 2003, it stood at $751 million, an increase from $697 million over the same period last year," he said.

He expected that the figure would reach $1 billion in 2004. "If this trend is persistent, we would see a thriving market for the two countries' airlines," he said.

In return for the freedom that has been granted to Garuda and Lion to fly to Vietnam, the Directorate General of Air Transportation at the Ministry of Communication has also given the freedom to Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Airlines to fly to Jakarta and Denpasar, Bali.

Despite the fact that the airlines fly the same route, Ayub was convinced that both Lion Air and Garuda would win an equal number of passengers from the route. "I believe that there will be healthy competition between the two airlines," he said.

Lion provides seats mostly for economy class, while Garuda is targeting the middle to upper market.

Upbeat over the growing need for budget flights in the region, Lion also plans to open new routes to Perth, Bangkok, Taipei, Seoul, Hong Kong, Chennai and Guang Zhou.