Athens International Airport (AIA) is expecting to see a sharp rise in Chinese arrivals to Greece after China reopened its borders following three years of closure due to Covid-19 and the recent launch of Air China’s direct flight connecting Shanghai with the Greek capital.
“Finally, after three years, we are all together to celebrate a very important development not only for our airport but also for our city and our country,” AIA Director of Communications and Marketing Ioanna Papadopoulou said on Tuesday during a media event to celebrate Air China’s new direct link.
The Athens-Shanghai (Pudong airport) flight launched on December 22, 2022, and takes off every Thursday from AIA at 21:15. The flight lasts 10 hours and 30 minutes and is carried out on an Airbus A350-900 aircraft (310 seats).
“This is very big news to us because it was a long awaited development even before the pandemic occurred and finally we are now in a position to really celebrate… We hope that things will be very positive in 2023 and there will be development along the way,” Papadopoulou said.
This is Air China’s second direct flight to AIA, following the launch of its non-stop Athens-Beijing route in 2017. The Athens-Beijing flight departs every Wednesday from AIA at 21:15 also on an Airbus A350-900.
While presenting data to journalists, Papadopoulou highlighted that the Chinese market is of particular importance for AIA given that it is one of the top three (along with the American and Russian markets) in terms of spending at the airport’s shops.
From 2013 to 2019, Papadopoulou informed that the Chinese market was one of the fastest growing for AIA, registering an increase of 166 percent, when the corresponding average growth rate of passenger traffic at Athens Airport was 104 percent. In 2018, China entered AIA’s 20 top markets and in 2019 it climbed to 15th place.
Papadopoulou informed that once Air China commenced direct operations with the Athens-Beijing route on September 30, 2017, passenger traffic from the Asian market to AIA doubled by 2019.
“The Asain market was booming… January 2020 was a good month and we expected spectacular success… We had been discussing strengthening connectivity with China right before the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.
In numbers, arrivals from China to AIA in 2019 reached 217,600, a 22 percent increase over 2018 for direct connections and a corresponding increase of 21 percent on connections with a stopover.
Athens-Shanghai route a milestone for Air China
During the event, Air China General Manager Fan Heyun said the airline’s addition has successfully established two direct flights from Athens to China’s two most important capitals: Beijing in the North and Shanghai in the South.
“Definitely, we’ll see more Chinese travelers here in Greece, and more Greek travelers in China. Let’s hope for the best,” he said, adding that the launch of the Athens-Shanghai route is another milestone for Air China in the Greek market after 2017 when the airline began the connection between Athens and Beijing.
It is reminded that the new Athens-Shanghai connection coincides with the opening of China’s borders after three years of closure and the country’s lifting of mandatory quarantine for travelers from abroad, measures that had been taken due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Air China’s general manager added that the lifting of the quarantine measure in China is very important for Chinese travelers who want to travel to Europe. “We expect much more travel in the coming months,” he said, leaving open the possibility of boosting frequency on both the airline’s Athens-Beijing and Athens-Shanghai routes.
No impact to travel demand due to Covid-19 measures
Meanwhile, a number of EU member states recently began imposing new Covid-19 measures on inbound travelers from China due to the country’s spike in cases.
According to Fan, Air China has not seen an impact to travel demand following the measures put in place by European countries. Greece, earlier this month, said it would also be requiring travelers from China to take a Covid-19 test 48 hours prior to boarding and wear a high-risk mask during incoming flights. However, until now the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority (HCAA) has not issued a relevant aviation directive (NOTAM).
Ambassador: China rejects new Covid-19 travel restrictions
On his part, Chinese Ambassador to Greece Xiao Junzheng said that China rejects the travel restrictions set by some European countries as they are not based on scientific data.
“The viral strain of variants spreading now in China actually has already existed in Europe for quite a long time so there is no reason to worry that international travelers from China pose a public health threat on the other countries,” Junzheng said.
The ambassador highlighted that although the number of infected cases in China is high, the majority are “mild cases”. He added that more than 3.4 billion doses of vaccine doses have been administered, covering more than 92 percent of the whole population.
“The rate of severe cases and mortality are quite low,” he said, adding that more than 90 percent of Chinese people have received four vaccine doses.
Athens-Shanghai flight to further strengthen tourism relations
Ambassador Junzheng said that the new Athens-Shanghai direct flight is an important step towards a joint action plan between Greece and China in the field of tourism.
“China and Greece both have competitive advantages in the tourism sector with very great potential for cooperation. Greece has much know-how and a quality tourism product, while China has a strong dynamic in terms of outbound tourism,” he said.
According to data presented by the ambassador, Chinese travelers made 155 million overseas visits including 7 million trips to Europe in 2019 before Covid-19, with Greece welcoming some 300,000 arrivals.
Moreover, more than 80 percent of Chinese travelers prefer package travel for trips to Greece. Young travelers from China mainly prefer the Greek islands with couples opting exclusively for Santorini.
“Last year we we witnessed the miracle created by Greece,” Junzheng said.
“The inbound tourism numbers and the general tourism income in Greece resumed to the level of 2019. So Greece set up an example for us and brought the future and the confidence for the world tourism industry.”
According to AIA’s Demographics for the Chinese market, 81 percent of Chinese travel to Greece is for leisure, 16 percent for business and 3 percent to visit friends and relatives. Chinese travelers book their tickets and packages about three months in advance and the average length of stay is estimated at 11 days.
Accordingly, 79 percent of Greeks that travel to China do so for business and 19 percent for vacations, with an average stay of one month. Unlike the Chinese, the Greeks are late bookers and make reservations some 27 days before their departure date.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Greece and 2023 will be the conclusion year of the “China-Greece Culture and Tourism Year”.
According to Air China’s general manager, Fan Heyun, the airline will actively promote and initiate the new prospect of cultural and tourism exchanges and cooperation between the two countries.
Moreover, 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit based on the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese New Year begins on Sunday, January 22. Athens International Airport will soon hold an event to celebrate.