Etihad Airways yesterday launched direct flights to Baku, the largest city on the Caspian Sea and of the Caucasus region.
The Azerbaijani capital was already served by direct flights from other UAE airports, including Flydubai and Azerbaijan Airlines from Dubai and Air Arabia from Sharjah. But the route linking the two capital cities cements growing bilateral ties and increasing trade between the UAE and Azerbaijan, which were bolstered last year by the UAE-Azerbaijan joint economic committee announcing a focus on nine key areas for co-operation, comprising air transport, tourism, communications, environment, water, agriculture, renewable energy, modern technology and industry. The UAE was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan after it became independent in 1991.
Etihad said that the visa waiver programme introduced for UAE nationals by Azerbaijan in 2015 had resulted in a surge of visitors since its implementation. Some 100,000 Emiratis now visit Azerbaijan each year, and the relaxation of visa restrictions on other nationalities with the recent introduction of cheaper electronic visas as the country made a decision to court tourism has led to an increase in tourist numbers generally.
Baku, a city of over 2 million people, has a long waterfront, a Unesco-listed medieval old city and numerous museums and art galleries. Two of its most modern landmarks are the iconic Flame Towers and the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center, which was completed in 2014. The city's international airport, 20 minutes from the centre, has opened two new terminals in the past 10 years.
Rashid Al Noori, chairman of Atlantis Holidays in Dubai and a representative of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the UAE, said the investment in infrastructure was attracting families looking to escape the UAE summer heat and short break travellers throughout the year. "It is safe and there is excellent food. The average stay is four nights and we are seeing a superb number of repeat visitors because the destination is so close," he said. "In 2014 there was only a couple of hundred Emiratis travelling here every month."
Peter Baumgartner, chief executive officer of Etihad Airways, said infrastructure investment had taken Baku from being an "off the radar" destination to one which had "started to boom" and that Azerbaijan could be a model for attracting Middle East tourism. The route launch was in response to strong demand, he said, and was expected to boost traffic further.
Mohammed A. Al Qubaisi, the UAE's Ambassador to Azerbaijan, said the country appealed because of the level of contrast it offered relative to its short flying time of just over 2.5 hours. "It's so close but there is a different vibe here; it's highly attractive to people from Middle East countries and expats because of the weather, the food, the people and because it's safe and well organised. When people come here they feel the positive energy. I am very glad to have this strong line between the two countries open."
The new flights will operate three times a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, using a 136-seat Airbus A320, with 120 seats in economy and 16 in business. Return tickets cost from Dh1,250 return including taxes.