Hari Man Lama is the Executive Chairman of Incentive Tours and Travels, which is the GSA of Malaysia-based long-haul, low-cost carrier AirAsia X. Involved in the tourism business with his Incentive Group of Companies for the last 18 years, Lama is a very dynamic personality with a strong vision to drive his business forward and ensure growth.
In an interview with Nepalnews.com, he said Nepali migrant workers heading to Malaysia have benefitted a lot in terms of cost and connectivity since AirAsia X started conducting five weekly flights between Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu. Also a travel writer with a book titled ‘Divine Destination’ to his name (the book is about his pilgrimage to Holy Mt Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in Tibet), he said Nepal’s tourism sector has a huge prospect with a lot of untapped potential.
1. It has been almost two years that AirAsia X has been operating in the Kathmandu sector. Please tell us what about your experience so far and future prospects?
AirAsia X conducted its maiden flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu with an Airbus A330-300 in July 2012. Starting from twice weekly flights, the low-cost carrier currently operates five weekly flights between the two cities and have plans to operate additional flights in the near future.
So in a short duration of time, we have experienced steady growth in passengers’ movement, making us one of the major international airline companies operating in Kathmandu route. And since Nepal has strong tourism potential and has a rapidly expanding aviation market, we expect the number of the passengers to grow significantly in the coming days.
2. What are your USPs (unique selling propositions)? And what is your marketing strategy?
AirAsia’s innovative low fare is both its USP and biggest marketing strategy. But just because we are low cost airline doesn’t mean we compromise in service. We are a low-cost airline, but provide quality service as well as world-class comfort and safety for travelers who opt for our airlines.
Besides this we have several USPs to our name. AirAsia X specializes in connecting major Asian destinations at a very low-cost. This is why the budget airline based in Malaysia is also called Asia’s largest low-cost carrier.
With its medium and long-haul operations, AirAsia X connects Nepal to over 78 destinations in 21 countries including China, Korea, Japan, Brunei and Australia. AirAsia’s vast network allows more convenient connections for Nepali travelers at very low cost.
3. Many international airlines operating in the country aim at Nepali migrant workers to increase their market share. Malaysia being one of the major labour importing countries from Nepal, should we presume AirAsia X is also here chiefly to cater to migrant workers?
With an estimated 500,000 Nepali currently involved in various jobs, Malaysia is one of the top destinations for Nepali migrant workers. The entry of AirAsia X has, for one, ended the monopoly of Nepal Airlines on the profitable Kathmandu-Kuala Lumpur sector and has increased travel demand between the two nations. Consequently, Nepali migrant workers heading to Malaysia or who are already there have benefited a lot in terms of cost and connectivity since AirAsia X started conducting five weekly flights between Kulal Lumpur and Kathmandu. We foresee increased labour traffic between the two countries in the coming days and due to this reason robust growth in seat demand.
However, we cater both to migrant workers and tourists. When we started operating in the country two years ago, almost 95 percent of our passengers from here were migrant workers. Now 35 to 40 percent of our total outbound passengers are tourists and 60 to 65 percent are migrant workers. Moreover, during peak season tourist occupancy can sometimes go up to 60 percent. So what is the logic behind putting so much emphasis on tourists? We think that targeting migrant workers only will not be sustainable for international airlines operating in Nepal in the long run, although labor traffic still accounts for around 80 percent of seat demand in most of the international airlines.
Therefore, we have to bring in more tourists into Nepal not only to increase our business, but to rid ourselves from the folly of relying only on migrant workers to ensure steady growth of passengers in the coming years
4. So tell us how can budget airlines like AirAsia X contribute towards increasing the prospects of Nepal’s tourism sector?
From the very begining we have been focusing our attention to bring in more tourists into Nepal through our extensive international connection. But in the meantime we want to also support and give quality and affordable service to Nepali migrant workers, who are currently our main customers in Nepal. Although we should be no 1 international airlines that take Nepali migrant workers to Malaysia, we want to also introduce and promote Nepal as a top holiday destination in all the countries Air Asia and Air Asia X flies to.
But before answering how can budget airlines help in attracting more tourists into the country and thereby contribute in growth and development of Nepal’s tourism sector, we have to understand the concept of budget airlines. It is a known fact that the majority of tourists coming into Nepal are budget travelers. This is because Nepal doesn’t have the kind of excellent tourism infrastructure as well as products and services to bring in luxurious, high-end travelers. So looking at both the local situation and international tourism trend (hit hard by global economic crisis), Nepal needs to focus more on budget travelers to increase the number of tourists coming into the country and help in development of tourism sector and ensure the economic impetus it can give.
Nepal is already blessed with natural beauty, scenic countryside and rich historical and cultural heritages. Now if we can only promote and brand Nepal as a low-cost tourist destination, we can encourage mass tourism that will not only give the much needed boost to the country’s tourism sector, but also contribute towards the economic growth of the country. This is where the concept of budget airlines can help. Given the economic recession the world over, it is but natural that tourists will avoid expensive destinations and tourism packages. In this situation if Nepal can portray itself as an inexpensive destination through budget airlines like AirAsia X then that can result in a much-awaited tourism boom in the country which will create more jobs, help businesses and increase the living standard of ordinary Nepali people.
However, I still say we have not been able to attract as much tourists as we can because we have been lagging far behind in tourism promotion and branding.
5. As a leading tourism entrepreneur with considerable experience in the travel trade business, tell us about the tourism sector in the country and how can a robust aviation sector help in its growth?
If the government invests in the development aviation sector, it will ultimately help in the development of tourism in the country and vice versa. However, aviation alone cannot boost tourism. This can only be done by increasing the capacity of hotels, by investing in vital infrastructures like roads, transportation system, conserving our nature, rich biodiversity and wildlife, and preserving our world heritage sites. Or maybe even by promoting Nepal as an adventure sports destination.
Civil aviation needs to focus on upgrading the international airports as well as domestic airports across Nepal. Tribhuvan International Airports management should be improved in order to increase the quality of air service infrastructures, ground handling and other airport facilities. Improvements in these fronts will go a long way in increasing tourism traffic in Nepal.
Being a landlocked country, international airlines are the only means through which Nepal is connected to the wider world. In fact, the national as well as international airlines operating in Nepal have been instrumental in the development and growth of the country’s tourism sector and promoting Nepal as a destination internationally.
Therefore, they have made significant contribution not only towards the development of tourism sector , but in the overall economy of the country. As a result, there is great prospect for international airline companies in Nepal.
6. It is said that the national carrier should be strong for the development of tourism and aviation sector in any country? Do you agree with this viewpoint?
Yes, our national carrier should definitely be strong , competent and as better as any world-class airlines. The role of a national carrier is crucial for development of tourism sector in any country and an engine for economic growth. Sadly, Nepal Airlines Corporation’s international flight operation is disappointing with over 90 percent of international aviation market of the country in the hands of international operators. This is mainly due to the fact that our national carrier has massively cut down its international operation from 21 destinations back only a decade ago to a mere five international destinations today.
7. So what should be done to save the national carrier?
NAC should immediately purchase more aircraft to improve its connectivity and fly directly to world’s leading destinations.It should come up with good business strategy to continue to grow.This will have long-term advantages for the both the aviation and tourism sector of the country. Wherever there is competition, there will be more business. It isn’t that if Nepal Airlines becomes better, other international airline companies will lose business or vice versa. And I don’t think that AirAsia X or other international airlines will lose market share if the national carrier becomes stronger. I don’t agree with such a notion competition will only enhance the market and help it grow.
Similarly, the quality of air service infrastructure in Nepal needs to be improved gradually and operational difficulties that exists should be done away with. The government should also think about the kind of support and incentives it can give to international airline operating in Nepal during the off season and give a serious thought to building an alternate international airport in the country to ease the pressure on TIA.
One of the reasons Nepal is not getting as much tourists as it should be is because Kathmandu is not a transit point or a stopover for any international airlines, but the last destination. If we can really turn TIA into a regional hub by giving more traffic rights to international airlines then that will help in promoting Nepal and lead to growth in tourism.
8. Since majority of your outbound passengers are Nepali migrant workers, does AirAsia X have any CSR programmes that is chiefly meant for their welfare?
Both Incentive Tours and Travels AirAisa are committed to causes that support people and strengthen communities in need. Therefore, we are supporting orphanages in Bhaktapur as well as providing logistic support to organisations working in educations projects in rural areas.
But if you talk about our corporate social responsibility policy chiefly meant for migrant workers, then the concept of budget airlines itself is a very good incentive for our workers abroad. Instead of paying high amount to go to Malaysia, they have to pay less on airfares if they opt for AirAsia X. Plus, we regularly throw promo fares to help frequent flyers fly cheap.
At the same time,we also have some innovative CSR programmes in the pipeline to support migrant workers, but we don’t want to promote ourselves in the name of CSR.