Gulf airlines are pushing into the Chinese hinterland, lured by the region's growing manufacturing base and rising affluence.
Video: Qatar and Etihad expand routes to China
By the end of the year Etihad Airways plans to add Chengdu as the 69th destination in its international network while Qatar Airways will begin serving Chongqing, described as the world's largest municipal zone with 28 million residents. Emirates Airline, which operates the most extensive services into China from the Gulf, is also expected to fly its A380 superjumbos to secondary cities such as Urumxi and Chengdu in the coming years, according to forecasts.
The ambitious long-haul carriers, with more than US$100 billion (Dh367.29bn) worth of new aircraft on order, are connecting the world's population centres across six continents via one-stop travel from their hubs in the UAE and Qatar.
Their strategic location has helped them offer the most direct services between East Asia and Africa, a continent enjoying growing levels of Chinese investment.
China, the world's second-largest economy, is expected surpass the US and take the top spot by 2030, according to forecasts by Goldman Sachs. By 2050, China will be a $70 trillion economy, nearly double that of the US or India, according to the same forecast.
The new air services come as China's hinterland becomes a growing magnet for trade and commerce, as wage inflation in the country's coastal manufacturing zones pushes factories inland.
"With these secondary Chinese cities looking to market themselves in competition to places like Beijing and Shanghai, the liquidity here proves an attractive reason for carriers to step in and get in early," said Saj Ahmad, an analyst at FBE Aerospace in London.
He said the hinterland services from the Gulf airlines were some of the first major forays by international carriers and would help the airlines deepen political ties with the Chinese government. "The stepping in early by the big three Arab airlines may well get them future access to other parts of China."
James Hogan, the chief executive of Etihad, recently called provincial China an "underserved growth area" and said his airline's Chengdu services would "further stimulate" the growth of commerce and trade between the UAE and China. Chengdu was the "economic centre and transportation and communication hub of China's booming south-west region", Mr Hogan said.
Likewise, Chongqing, one of only four municipalities in China which report directly to the national government, along with Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, is one of the country's most important centres of car manufacturing. Qatar Airways is "delighted to be part of China's burgeoning economic growth", said Akbar al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways.
Emirates operates daily or twice-daily A380 superjumbo services into Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The Dubai carrier could expand its A380 services further into China by adding Chengdu by 2015 and other secondary cities such as Xiamen, Urumxi and Nanjing by 2020, according to a study by RBS.