Air Arabia and flydubai target ex-Soviet states

UAE budget carriers are ramping up services to former members of the Soviet bloc as tourists from the region seek respite from their freezing winters.

An Air Arabia aircraft taxis at the Sharjah International Airport. Kiev was the airline's first destination in former Soviet states, and it plans to expand its service to Donetsk and Kharkov next month. Pawan Singh / The National
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Competition is intensifying among UAE budget airlines to open up markets in former Soviet states.

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The carriers want to entice residents of those countries into the UAE's winter sunshine.

Air Arabia plans to start offering services to the Ukrainian cities of Kharkov and Donetsk early next month.

However, the Sharjah airline has been beaten to it by flydubai, which will start operations to both cities this week.

The Dubai airline said on Monday it would also begin offering services to Tbilisi, becoming the first UAE airline to offer direct flights to the Georgian capital.

"As Georgia's largest city as well as its industrial, social and cultural centre, Tbilisi is gaining prominence in the Middle East both as a business and leisure destination," said flydubai's chief executive, Ghaith Al Ghaith.

"Also, improving air links between Dubai to Central and Eastern Europe is of great strategic importance to us."

Both routes are being launched as the winter travel season approaches.

The UAE is an attractive location for visitors from Russia and other former Soviet countries seeking respite from plunging temperatures at home.

In addition, the UAE has more than 55,000 expatriates from Eastern and Central Europe.

Air Arabia's new routes will mean it provides eight flights a week between its base in Sharjah and Ukraine.

It already operates flights to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Ukraine had "strong economic and cultural ties" with the UAE and wider Gulf region, said Adel Ali, the chief executive of the airline.

Not be outdone, flydubai will start services to Kiev and Kharkov, Ukraine's second largest city, from tomorrow. On Saturday, the airline will begin service to Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine.

Despite a steady flow of tourists visiting the emirates every year from Eastern Europe, the region has been relatively underserved by UAE carriers.

Emirates Airline will start flights to St Petersburg on November 1, adding to its service to Moscow.

Etihad Airways flies to Moscow and Minsk in Belarus and uses a code-share agreement to fly to Kiev.

It also flies to Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan.

In addition to its new routes, flydubai operates five connections to cities in former Soviet states including Yerevan in Armenia, the Azeri capital of Baku, the Russian cities of Samara and Yekaterinburg, and the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.

Kiev was Air Arabia's first destination in the region. Ukraine is a particularly attractive destination for airlines as the country will next summer co-host the Uefa Euro football championship. As many as 1.1 million spectators attended the last tournament when it was held in 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.

The increase in services to the region also reflects growing commercial links. From oil services to burgeoning financial industries, the UAE and the former Soviet bloc share similarities in business. The UAE has also been keen to assess opportunities in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to meet its food security requirements.

"For the first time, the UAE was rated among the top 10 investors in the Russian economy last year," said Yury Molchanov, the vice governor of St Petersburg ahead of the launch of Emirates Airline's flights to the city.

"St Petersburg is an important gateway into Russia and a very active region for business, industry and culture. Its attractions and world heritage sites draw millions of tourists each year," said Richard Vaughan, Emirates Airline's divisional senior vice president for commercial operations worldwide.