As befitting a growing global travel hub, 2017 was an exciting time for new flight routes from the UAE. Airlines both consolidated existing routes and built on earlier launches to expand their networks, while partnerships and codeshare agreements literally opened up the world to UAE travellers wanting to travel only on UAE airlines. In July, for example, Emirates launched a daily service to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, which stops en-route in Yangon; simultaneously, its Hanoi route, which had stopped in Yangon, became non-stop. One wonders what other South East Asian ports of call could be added later this year. A codeshare agreement with Flydubai has expanded Emirates' network by a further 29 destinations, while the Dubai-based low-cost carrier added several new routes of its own, including Batumi in Georgia, Qabala in Azerbaijan and Tivat in Montenegro.
From Abu Dhabi, airBaltic launched a direct service to the Latvian capital Riga, in partnership with Etihad Airways. Riga itself, a hub for airBaltic, announced five new routes from Riga from 2018, meaning that UAE travellers could continue their travels within Europe to the new locales of Bordeaux, Gdansk, Lisbon, Malaga and Split, perhaps booking a circular ticket to fly into one airport and out of the other, all the time using a trusted carrier.
For 2018, expansion is being focused on areas of consistent and substantial tourism growth, with a focus on Europe and Russia. The ability, since February 2017, of Russian passengers to receive a free 30-day visa on arrival in the UAE has led to a huge demand for flights from all over the country, opening up some of Russia's most interesting and previously inaccessible corners to travellers from the UAE. Flydubai alone now offers over 50 flights a week to 11 destinations in Russia, the most recent of which are Makhachkala, Ufa and Voronezh. While new routes will be added throughout the year, these are the 12 we're most excited about now.
1. Abu Dhabi to Goa, Jet Airways
Not a moment too soon, a direct service has just been launched between Abu Dhabi and Goa, turning what used to be at least an 8 hour ordeal via Bombay or Muscat into a breezy 3 hour hop (even if the flight from Abu Dhabi does depart at 10.50pm, arriving in India just before 4am local time). What's more, this route is the first and only direct link between the UAE and the south Indian state, one of India's major tourism centres. With return tickets currently available from Dh843 return including taxes, we anticipate plenty of demand for long weekends from residents of the UAE capital (www.jetairways.com).
2 Abu Dhabi to Baku, Etihad
The capital of Azerbaijan, boasting the Unesco-listed Walled City of Baku with the Shiranshah's Palace and Maiden Tower, as well as the ultra-modern Flame Towers and Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center, is finally becoming a direct Etihad route on March 2. The thrice-weekly service also takes just three hours and Etihad's civilised flight schedule sees the outbound flight depart Abu Dhabi at 10.10am, arriving at 13.15, while the return departs Baku at 16.30, arriving at 19.25. Again, this more than halves previous indirect travel times of nine hours or more. With return flights currently on sale from Dh1,415 per person including taxes, we can see demand for this service selling out fast (www.etihad.com).
3. Dubai to Krakow, Flydubai
Flydubai's first flights to Poland will start on April 8, when the airline launches a direct service to Krakow (this is also the first direct route to the city from the UAE). The country's cultural capital, Krakow boasts a Unesco-listed old town featuring Gothic, baroque and Renaissance architecture, smart hotels and low prices. Return tickets for the 5.5 hour flight are currently available from Dh2,245 return including taxes (www.flydubai.com).
4. Dubai to Dubrovnik
Starting on April 10 and continuing until October 25 for the summer season, UAE travellers can now fly direct to one of eastern Europe's most popular cities three times a week. The Croatian city's Old Town was world famous long before Game of Thrones was filmed there, and hotel options range from budget to luxury. The route reflects a growing demand for travel to the Balkans from the UAE and builds on the Dubai-Podgorica and Dubai-Tivat routes launched in 2017. Departures from Dubai on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with return flights costing from 2,235 return including taxes (www.flydubai.com). The trip takes six hours.
5. Sharjah – Moscow Sheremetyevo
The number of direct routes starting between the UAE and Russia – whether it's Flydubai, Air Arabia or the Russian charter airline Rossiya, is continuing apace. From March 1, hot on the heels of FlyDubai, Air Arabia will complement its existing Sharjah-Moscow Domodedovo daily flight with a daily direct route into Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, four times a week. While Domodedovo is situated to the south of Moscow, Sheremetyevo is located about the same distance to the north, with faster train services into the capital, one of the world's greatest cities. The flights take just over five hours and tickets are currently available from Dh1,055 return including taxes (www.airarabia.com).
6. Dubai to London Stansted, Emirates
Just in time for the summer exodus, Emirates has announced that it is launching a direct route between Dubai and Stansted Airport in Essex from June 8. While the route will partly cater to business travel, the route is also about getting more capacity into London, with extremely limited expansion options available at Heathrow. UK travellers will enjoy being able to fly into London whilst avoiding Heathrow's crowds. Those landing in Stansted can also travel quickly to the attractive English cities of Cambridge and Newmarket. The flight takes 7 hours and tickets are currently available from Dh2,665 return including taxes (www.emirates.com).
7. Dubai to Catania, Sicily
UAE holidaymakers heading to Sicily will also rejoice in being able to avoid a nine-hour ordeal flying via Rome or other Italian airports in order to get to the southern island of Sicily. From 13 June, it's a six-hour direct flight with Flydubai to Catania, costing from Dh2,185 return including taxes. Thanks to its proximity to Tunisia, Sicily enjoys deep Arab influences which are reflected in some of its architecture, culture and cuisine (www.flydubai.com).
8. Sharjah to Bodrum
Again offering respite from layovers in Istanbul, from June 13, Air Arabia is offering a seasonal direct route to Bodrum on the Turkish Riviera, which gets you there in 4.5 hours. The flight will operate three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, departing Sharjah International Airport at 21:45 hours, and arriving the next day at Bodrum's Milas Mugla International Airport at 01:30 hours local time. The return flight will depart Bodrum at 02:10 hours, landing in Sharjah at 07:35 hours local time. Tickets cost from Dh1,760 return including taxes (www.airarabia.com).
9. Dubai to Kutaisi, Georgia
Flydubai is continuing its run of direct routes into Georgia by launching a service to Kutaisi on 14 June. Kutaisi is Georgia's third biggest city and is located 220km west of the capital Tbilisi. "Capital of several historica kingdoms within Georgia, Kutaisi is today being revitalised after years of post-Soviet decline," says travel media company Lonely Planet. "Georgia's parliament was transferred from Tbilisi to brand-new quarters here in 2012 and Kutaisi's airport has become a destination for international budget airlines." Tickets for the twice-weekly flights cost from Dh1,445 return including taxes. The flight takes 3.5 hours (www.flydubai.com).
10. Dubai to Makhachkala, Ufa and Voronezh, Russia
Makhachkala, located on the Caspian Sea close to the borders of Georgia and Azerbaijan, has a population of over 500,000 and is home to the Makhachkala Grand Mosque, one of Russia's largest. Its location in the North Caucasus offers some striking scenery. Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, has a population of over a million and is situated south-west of Yekaterinurg, close to Kazakhstan. Voronezh, an industrial city sometimes used as a stopover for journeys to Ukraine or the Caucasus, features some grand old buildings, a renovated city centre and hipster cafes. If only obtaining Russian visas was easier. Tickets for the 3.5 hour flight to Makhachkala cost from Dh1,600; the five-hour trip to Voronezh costs from Dh1,700, and the five-hour flights to Ufa cost from Dh1,381 return, all return including taxes (www.flydubai.com).
11. Sharjah to Asmara, Eritrea
Again following Flydubai, which launched a route to the Eritrean capital in 2015, Air Arabia is now offering one direct flight a week, priced from Dh1,400 return including taxes for the four-hour trip. Asmara is noted for its architecture, including art deco, modernist and futurist, coffee shops and restaurants. Most tourists need a permit to travel outside the city and travellers from the UAE will need to arrange visas in advance. Return flights cost from Dh1,400 return including taxes (www.airarabia.com).
12. Dubai to Kilimanjaro
Just launched by Flydubai, this route solves the thorny, time-consuming issue of how safari travellers get to Tanzania's northern wildlife centres; previously, flights involved detours via Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam. Of course, the route is also ideal for those attempting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Other attractions in the immediate area include Moshi, the coffee plantations of Arusha, Lake Chala and Arusha and Kilimanjaro National Parks. Once you've finished hiking, take an internal direct flight to the island of Zanzibar before flying back direct to Dubai from there. Return tickets for the 5.5 hour trip cost from Dh1,563 including taxes (www.flydubai.com).