For decades now Iceland has sold itself as the ultimate stopover destination for travelers. Its meteoric rise as a tourism hot spot cannot be fully blamed on the stopover program, of course; it is a gorgeous destination in its own right. But the aggressive marketing by Icelandair to deliver connecting passengers to the hotels and tourist sites did great things to build awareness of the opportunities. And to build traffic for the airline. Many other airlines are now attempting to mimic that program, hoping for similar results. Can they succeed??
The most recent entrant into a formal stopover program is Ethiopian Airlines. The carrier seeks to “attract a significant portion of our transit customers in Addis as tourists and to considerably enhance the flow of tourism into the country,” according to CEO Tewolde Gebremariam. The airline is coordinating with immigration authorities to provide the necessary visa for its transit customers (this program was in place previously, but is expanding to online applications) and hopes to drive a tourism boom with the efforts. As the airline’s route map continues to expand into Europe, Asia and Africa the passenger flow opportunities should grow as well. The tour packages available as part of the stopover program are all paid by the passenger, a small negative against the program. But the variety of options and their duration – multi-day in some cases – truly draw travelers in to the goal of exploring (and spending money in) the transit country.
With its many riches, the world has yet to truly discover Ethiopia and tourism has the potential to become the main foreign currency generator for the country and a mass job creator for the youth. – Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam
Alitalia announced a similar stopover program at the beginning of 2018, hoping to attract more passengers and change the airline’s financial fortunes. In this case the airline negotiated some deals with local hotels to reduce lodging costs but the overall goal is far more about building airline traffic than general economic development of the hub destination. Which makes a certain amount of sense given that Rome needs little in the way of marketing to remain a massive tourism destination. The company limits the program to only certain long-haul routes transiting Fiumicino airport but still has grand goals for the number of passengers using the program.
At the announcement Chief Commercial Officer Fabio Maria Lazzerini suggested an early target of 500,000 passengers taking advantage initially, tripling over time. Hitting that goal will be hard given the relatively low number of long-haul (i.e. eligible itinerary) passengers the company carries. June 2018 saw just over a quarter million long-haul travelers, roughly 13% of the total passenger volume. Expecting a full quarter of them to take advantage of the stopover is incredibly optimistic and getting to 75% (i.e. the 1.5mm target) is ludicrous. Of course, expecting solid business plans from Alitalia stopped being a thing many years ago so perhaps none of this is really surprising.
Turkish Airlines recently celebrated the one year anniversary of its stopover program at Istanbul. Passengers with a 20+ hour stop are given a complimentary hotel room in the tourist areas of the city, with the option to buy other tour services through the airline or simply explore on their own. Similar to Alitalia the program started with a limited set of routes. Only two countries were covered when the program began, rising to 19 by the one year anniversary. Another 10 will be added in 2018. By the end of year one 14,000 passengers took advantage of the program. That maps out to just under 40 passengers per day taking the free stopover in Istanbul.
Of the passengers who have visited Istanbul through the Stopover program, 62% said that they have traveled with Turkish Airlines for the first time, while 73% said that the Stopover privilege was an influential factor in their decision to travel with Turkish Airlines.
Adding 8,500 first-time customers is valuable to the carrier but also just a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 40 million international travelers the carrier expects to carry in 2018. A free hotel room makes the sometimes long connections far more tolerable, but that’s different from passengers purposefully booking a multi-day stay in town. And, while the airline could arguably help the Turkish economy these days by attracting more tourists the low prices (thanks to a collapsing foreign exchange rate) and well developed infrastructure around the historic sites likely does more.
Also considering the idea is Cape Verde Airways, the airline of the eponymous island archipelago off the coast of western Africa. Here the goal is much more closely aligned to what was achieved with Icelandair in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both airline traffic and tourism growth are desired. Indeed, the similarities are so great that the airline sought the help of Icelandair to manage the route network and help reach that goal. Nearby Dakar has served as a connecting point for traffic between Africa and North America in the past. Cape Verde hopes to build on that idea with better timed connections and more options for travelers, including a few on every flight stopping for a bit in the islands.
Just a bit further north Azores Airways wants to see similar growth from stopovers between New England and Europe where its route network passes. The Azores islands are relatively out of the way for such connections (Iceland is far less so, bolstering its success) but the relatively solid tourism infrastructure should help support the efforts, assuming the stopover travelers ever arrive. The airline is struggling, even after its rebrand from SATA. New aircraft will help reduce flight costs and improve passenger comfort but the company needs a strong push to become top of mind for travelers. Icelandair is considering an ownership stake in the carrier to help ease the financial crunch and boost the stopover operations.
TAP, Finnair, Qatar Airways and others are all in on the stopover game as well. China has spent the past few years easing transit visa requirements, helping its airlines to establish such programs. Qatar recently made a similar move.
Easing long connections is great, especially for travelers who want to break up the 20+ hour journeys around the globe. True stopover programs are different, with multiple days on the ground to visit an extra destination during a trip. And they can attract a few passengers relatively easily. But the process of booking them is generally abysmal for passengers. Increasing awareness of the option will help but easing the slight selection process is even more critical to their success. And, unfortunately, scant progress is being made on that front today. Travelers who know that the option exists AND who know how to book a multi-city itinerary might manage to pull it off. For everyone else, however, the stopover remains an unlikely option. Which is unfortunate, because the extra stop is often an incredible opportunity.
Header Image: Sunrise over Addis Abbaba during a recent 26-hour stopover