San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Avianca-TACA adds new routes

The global recession may have grounded other companies, but Avianca-TACA is flying high, with expanded routes across Latin America.

Colombia-based Avianca merged with Central America’s TACA Airlines in February. Now the company has taken over shares in Ecuador’s Galápagos Airlines, or AeroGal, which operates 13 aircraft and offers direct flights between New York City and South America’s Galápagos Islands.

Just days before the deal with AeroGal, Avianca-TACA and Panama’s Copa Airlines became the latest companies to join the Star Alliance, a prestigious global airline network that includes Air Canada, Continental Airlines, U.S. Airways and United Airlines. Star Alliance carriers offer 22,500 daily flights and serve 1,292 destinations in 188 countries.

“The addition of this quality airline group concludes a strategic process that increases Star Alliance’s footprint in the vibrant, growing economies of Latin America,” Star Alliance CEO Jaan Albrecht said.

Albrecht said Latin America’s aviation market is “changing rapidly” through stronger alliances that he said would “play an ever bigger role” as Latin America continues to develop.

Another crucial development is Avianca-TACA’s Dec. 1 inauguration of a route between Costa Rica’s Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste, the country’s second largest airport, and San Salvador, El Salvador. Flights will operate four days a week, and will open connecting flights to major cities throughout the Americas, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Passengers will also be able to connect to Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.

The new flights will carry up to 46 passengers in European-built dual-propeller ATR 42 airplanes (TT, Oct. 15).

“This new flight responds to passenger demands,” said Estuardo Ortiz, Avianca-TACA’s chief operating officer. “The Liberia airport is increasingly becoming an important hub for international travel,” he said.

Fly in the Tourists

The recent push to increase Central American air travel is in step with efforts to boost tourism to the region. It seems to be working. As stories and photos of Latin America’s rich attractions spread across the globe, more tourists are looking for ways to get here.

According to a recent study by the Central America Tourism Agency (CATA), tourism to the region was up 17 percent through the first six months of 2010 compared to the same period last year. CATA reported that 4.5 million tourists visited the seven Central American nations during the first six months of this year, and each country reported an increase in tourist visits. Costa Rica had the most at 1.1 million tourists.

The CATA study also found that European travel to Central America was up 5 percent from 2009, as the number of Spanish, German, British and French tourists increased.

Costa Rica saw an even bigger increase in the number of European tourists visiting the country, up 9 percent in the first six months of 2010, the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) reported.

The most popular Costa Rican destinations for European travelers included Tortuguero, in the Limón province, and Manuel Antonio National Park, on the central Pacific coast.

“The promotion of new airline carriers and routes will be an important push during the next few years,” Costa Rican Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides told The Tico Times in April (TT, May 18).

“We would like to try to establish more direct flights from Costa Rica to Europe,” Benavides said. “We think we can open more direct flights if we improve our relationships with European countries,” he added.

Currently, the only direct flight to Europe from San José is to Madrid, Spain, on Iberia Airlines.

Spain’s Iberia Airlines appears to be emerging as one of the primary feeders into the Central American market. In addition to the route to San José, Iberia recently launched direct flights from Madrid to Guatemala City, San Salvador and Panama City.

With Avianca-TACA and Copa Airlines operating under the umbrella of Star Alliance, more direct and connecting flights between Central America and Europe could follow. While U.S. tourists account for the majority of visitors to Costa Rica, tapping the European market is next on the ICT’s to-do list.  

“We are going to continue our efforts to attract tourists from Europe and continue to establish relationships there to promote Costa Rica as a tourist destination,” Benavides said.

If tourism keeps on pace, more than 2 million tourists will visit Costa Rica in 2010, after falling below that mark in 2009. Benavides has stated that he hopes for the number of tourists to hit 2.5 million by 2014. If this is to happen, easy access will play an important role.

“The easier it is to get here, the more likely people are to come,” Benavides said. “If more direct or one-stop flights are offered, we assume that will only help the tourism industry,” he said.  

In the last three years, earnings from tourism have averaged around $2 billion, about 7 percent of the annual gross domestic product.

With the new route to Liberia and the anticipation that more could follow, Avianca-TACA’s recent maneuvering could help keep regional tourism soaring.

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