Kenya Airways (KQ) on Friday flew into Gaborone, Botswana, in what is being viewed as a major challenge to rival South African Airways (SAA).
The long-awaited flight is expected to hugely eat into SAA Nairobi-Johannesburg route, as passengers flying to Botswana opt for the shorter and cheaper route.
KQ is now flying thrice a week to Sir Seretse Khama International Airport — making a round trip from Nairobi through Gaborone, then flying back to Nairobi with a brief stopover at Harare.
It becomes the only other airline, besides SAA, to land in the sleepy airport. Air Botswana, which used to fly to Nairobi in the 1990s, has smaller aircrafts specialising in the South African routes.
Customers will pay at least $200 (about Sh15,000) less for flying directly to Gaborone. “Almost everyone I meet has asked me why no one thought about making this move,” said an excited Botswana ambassador to Kenya, Charles Mogotsi, during the departure of the flight at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi.
The rich southern Africa country is trying to diversify its economy — heavily reliant on minerals — and tourism is an obvious option.
Starting an alternative route that does not pass through South Africa is important in accessing tourism and even commercial resources afforded by the KQ Asian, African and European networks.
“This is new cooperation between Kenya and Botswana. It will reduce dependence on the Johannesburg route,” said Botswana Tourism Board marketing manager, Joe Motse.
According to officials who are not authorised to speak for the airline, KQ beat Ethiopian and a large Middle East carrier after Botswana invited them to tender for the route.
However, KQ will operate a code-share agreement with Air Botswana. Under the agreement, the two airlines will market the tourism industry of both countries. The KQ flight to Gaborone was dominated by Kenyan tour operators while Botswana operators flew into Mombasa on Sunday morning.
Transport minister, Chirau Mwakwere, addressed enthusiastic Kenyans living in Botswana, after arriving in the flight at 11.20am. KQ managing director, Titus Naikuni, had flown to Gaborone earlier and was at hand to receive the flight.
The national flag-carrier has been long in coming here and there have been several false starts. A Kenyan businessman in Gaborone, Mbugua Kibikua, having lived in the country for 10 years, knows that only too well.
“About 10 years ago, former president Moi came here accompanied by (former) KQ chairman Omolo Okero. They promised us that flights would commence soon,” he told the Nation, recalling the mighty feasting that accompanied the announcement.
There are almost 10,000 Kenyan businessmen, technocrats, academics, students and top-notch professionals residing in the the world’s largest diamond producer.
The number has been fluctuating in line with the Kenyan economy and the global meltdown’s impact on the Botswana economy.
“The three weekly flights from Nairobi will open up Botswana for Kenyan investors, tourists and horticultural products. It will also enhance the opportunity of exporting beef and beef products to Europe,” Kenya Airways chief operating officer, Mr Bram Steller says.
The flights take place Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. With the Saturday flight taking off around midnight, the airport at the weekend was open for the first time after 8pm.