Trade relations between KwaZulu-Natal and Zambia, the province's most significant trading partner in Africa, are set for an injection of growth as a result of the establishment of a direct air link between Durban and the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
Speaking at a function in Lusaka to mark the official launch of new direct air route, Mr Michael Mabuyakhulu, MEC for Economic Development and Tourism, said: "We recognise that in spite of the previous absence of direct flights between Lusaka and Durban, Zambia is, in fact, KwaZulu-Natal's largest trading partner in Africa. Exports from our province to Zambia in 2012 were valued at R2,47 billion and represented a pleasing 14.8% of KwaZulu-Natal's total exports into Africa."
In addition, some 30% of all South African imports from the African continent were sourced in Zambia last year.
"We have a well-established trade platform between us, but with a regular and frequent direct air link in place, the potential to increase and enhance relations and trade activities are infinite," he added.
The reciprocal, give-and-take potential of tourist travel to the business mix, would provide an additional 'heady blend' of economic activity, which would benefit both Zambia and KwaZulu-Natal.
The four-times-a-week SA Express air route, using a 50-seater CRJ 200 jet aircraft, between Durban and Lusaka became commercially operational in July last year and has enjoyed steady support, but is not yet running at full capacity.
Dube TradePort Corporation and SA Express signed an agreement in 2012 resulting in the airline using King Shaka International Airport as its launch-pad into countries comprising the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The move was designed to unlock key markets for the benefit of KwaZulu-Natal in targeted countries during the next two to three years, through the vigorous promotion of business and leisure travel, as well as trade and investment activities.
Mr Mabuyakhulu said the official launch function had provided the opportunity for role-players and decision-makers to come together, "enabling still greater engagement with one another from an investment, business and leisure perspective."
He led an appeal to business and tourism decision-makers in both KwaZulu-Natal and Zambia to "give serious consideration as to how best to utilise SA Express flights between Lusaka and Durban to their own and their business advantage."
"There exists a very real opportunity for us, jointly, to realise the true potential of our respective markets, creating new investment, business and tourism channels, platforms and alliances between us," he added.
In an attempt to further cement business relations between KwaZulu-Natal and Zambia, the celebratory launch function was also used to sign a Memorandum of Understanding between the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Lusaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Mr Mabuyakhulu said: "The intention is to facilitate increased trade and business activity between members of these respective bodies, as well as other stakeholders. Co-operation between the two Chambers will also foster mutual understanding and awareness of available business opportunities in Lusaka and Durban."
The agreement was also set to pave the way for skills transfer and knowledge-sharing initiatives, while creating a platform for delegation exchanges and the identification of potential joint projects.
Mr Mabuyakhulu described the new direct air route as having 'huge potential' and one destined for significant growth, adding: "We are confident that the business community will find this an ever more attractive proposition, while leisure travellers will come to realise just how close and alluring the waters of the Indian Ocean really are."
Commenting on ongoing air connectivity initiatives, Ms Saxen van Coller, Dube TradePort Corporation's Chief Executive Officer, said: "We are working to significantly increase direct regional and international air services to and from Durban in an effort to transform this region into South Africa's primary alternative gateway. We have developed a five-year strategy designed to identify and attract a growing number of carriers to utilise Durban's King Shaka International Airport. An important player in this endeavour is, of course, SA Express, with its commitment to linking Durban directly with a host of SADC countries, a move which creates endless new possibilities for our and Zambia's business and tourism communities."
Indications are that significant demand for international travel to and from Greater Durban exists, impacting on a large number of destinations worldwide. Statistics demonstrate that this market has grown by more than 70% in the past five years, although only 20% of passengers are able to fly internationally to and from King Shaka International Airport directly. The vast majority must still utilise domestic flights to or from Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport so as to connect to or from international destinations.
"The launch of the Lusaka route increases connectivity with Dube TradePort, assisting in the generation of economic efficiencies for business. Dube TradePort is the core of this airport-based business location, an area we are developing as a sustainable operating environment and one which provides for superior business growth and economic development," said Ms van Coller.
The introduction of direct air routes to land-locked countries in the SADC region provide for the growth of new tourism markets and the provincial authority, Tourism KwaZulu-Natal, is intensifying its promotional activities in these areas.
Tourism KwaZulu-Natal Chief Executive Officer, Mr Ndabo Khoza, said of the Lusaka route: "Based on global travel trends, some 80% of inbound travellers emanate from regions within a four-hour flying radius and we have accordingly identified a need to actively address access to and by markets in the important SADC countries around South Africa. We recognise that KwaZulu-Natal has a unique offering for the benefit of such markets...our golden beaches, warm Indian Ocean waters and year-round warmth. We are intent on robustly promoting our province in such markets, selling the beach experience, creating a platform for the benefit of new African tourists to Durban and KwaZulu-Natal."
Mr Phillip Sithole, Chief Executive Officer of Durban Tourism, added: "Durban's key offerings like Ushaka Marine World, Moses Mabhida Stadium, The Beach Experience and the world class shopping malls are unique selling points to capture the Africa Market. We need to just start working with inbound Tour Operators to aggressively market packaged tours and increase our destination marketing initiatives."
Mr Zamo Gwala, Chief Executive Officer of Trade & Investment KwaZulu-Natal, stressed: "Our province has a high export bias and an elevated industrial concentration. We make every effort to create and sustain an investment environment to the ultimate advantage of the local economy, investors and traders. With the implementation of the Durban-Lusaka air route, our organisation will work to harness the unquestionable benefits of synergistic linkages through the promotion of strategic partnerships, in line with the tactical business objectives of KwaZulu-Natal's Provincial Growth and Development Strategy."
Mr Andrew Layman, the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry's Chief Executive Officer, said of the SA Express Durban-Lusaka air link: "We consider a direct route from Durban to Lusaka to be of tremendous value to those local businesses which are already trading in Zambia, or wish to do so in the future. We commend Dube TradePort and SA Express for providing new African links to Durban business people."
Akash Singh, the President of the Durban Chamber, said: "We are very excited to see how government is working hard to create an enabling environment for business. It is now time that business seize the opportunity and work even harder at increasing the current R2 billion cross border trade. Access to market is the single biggest inhibitor to business and in this case government has made this possible."
The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Lusaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry during this visit.
By signing this Memorandum, organised business both in Durban and Lusaka signify their intention to jointly pursue increased trade and business activity between their members and/or stakeholders to derive mutual economic benefit for their respective countries.
Mr Mabuyakhulu said: "In KwaZulu-Natal we have a leading and highly competitive destination; a destination of choice now for stakeholders in Zambia's business and tourist sectors. Direct flights introduced by SA Express provide the springboard necessary for taking existing and prospective new business dealings between KwaZulu-Natal and Zambia to an altogether new level. This is an exciting prospect and one which brings with it the opportunity for hugely intensified trade relations and a brand new platform for quick and affordable tourist travel."