Yerevan’s award-winning Zvartnots International Airport is preparing for a sharp increase in passenger numbers, with arrivals expected to double in the next five years. Airport General Manager Marcelo Wende discusses the policy reforms driving this rise and the ongoing infrastructure transformations that are already boosting revenue.
You have been in your role since 2002. What do you view as your biggest successes and what will your biggest challenges be over the next five to 10 years?
From the beginning, we totally changed not only the infrastructure of the airport, but also the customer service. We were one of the first companies to install customer service in the country. We have a lot of room to improve and we are always trying to do this because emerging from the Soviet era has been very complicated. But now we are seeing the results and continue trying to improve. At this stage, the country is facing a big increase in the tourist sector, so we are planning to continue enlarging the terminal to allow us to handle the rise in passenger numbers we are expecting in the next five years. In 2002 we had 800,000 passengers. At this moment, we have 2.5 million and we think we can double this amount in the next five years. What we are trying to do is enlarge the terminal, increase our equipment and update all the infrastructure to be ready to continue growing and providing the same service as we are giving now.
As you said, the airport is undergoing a large-scale transformation as part of the 2018-2022 masterplan to facilitate the increased numbers of visitors to the country. Could you walk us through the transformation plan?
First of all, the plan includes the renovation of the runway. This is the main thing for the airlines – they are requesting a safe and secure runway for passengers. Security issues are also important and we are taking a lot of care over this. Besides this, there’s customer service and making sure all the infrastructure is of the high quality we are used to having at airports around the world. Yerevan’s airport is one of the most beautiful there is – it’s not the biggest, but it’s very beautiful. We are also expecting a large increase in cargo because of our relations with the Gulf countries, Russia and other areas around Armenia that can receive the vegetables, fruits and other products that we can produce in large quantities and of high quality.
In May 2016 you said this airport can become a regional hub as a result of open skies policies, and you also mentioned visa facilitation as one of the things the government should be looking into. The United Arab Emirates is now visa exempt. How do you see the UAE and other Gulf countries using this as a regional hub?
It was a very important step by the government of Armenia to open the skies and remove all restrictions on passengers arriving here. Armenia is a very friendly country and we have the airport and good infrastructure to receive them. It is very important that visitors can now come without restrictions, not only from the Gulf countries, but also from India and other places in Asia.
The passenger flow to Armenia is on the rise. The total number of passengers at the airport has increased almost 10% between January 2017 and January 2018, while the total number of flights at both international airports is up 11% over the same period. To what do you attribute this growth and what is driving this demand to visit Armenia now?
It’s not only the open skies policy, but also the improving infrastructure in the country. There are more hotels, more restaurants, more cafés and so on. People have plenty of options to have fun, to walk around, to eat and drink and also to visit different places around the country. The open skies policy is allowing people to come and they are coming more and more. It’s the same as is happening in Georgia. Georgia perhaps opened the market some years earlier, and has been growing very fast over the last two or three years. In Armenia it will happen exactly the same way. Armenian people are very entrepreneurial – they like to invest and grow, and so the development we are seeing now will go faster in the next year. The government has good relations with Russia and also Western countries – the United States and Europe. Armenia has a big and powerful diaspora around the world and so if everybody is helping, it will become much better.
What opportunities does the Arabian Travel Market, to be held in Dubai in April, present to showcase travel to Armenia and promote improved tourism facilities, such as the transformation of the airport?
The government and the tourist sector should take advantage of all opportunities to promote the country. Armenia was not doing a big campaign before, but now it understands that it is important to be there. We have a lot of flights from Gulf countries. Five years ago, we had maybe five flights a week. Now we have two daily flights from FlyDubai, four flights per week from Air Arabia, and Qatar operating daily flights. Soon we will also have Gulf Air flying here. Having this number of flights and with the frequency of flights increasing, people now have the possibility to come and go after two or three days, a week, or however long they want. It will be very flexible for tourists who come to Yerevan.
Zvartnots was voted the best emerging airport in Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic countries in 2013…
We are not improving the quality of the airport to win any awards. We are doing it because it is our passion and we want to create good infrastructure. We see that the better we make the infrastructure, the more people respond – because duty-free sales are improving, the business lounge is growing its number of passengers more every year, and VIP services are growing. The better the infrastructure, far higher is the rate of return because people enjoy their stay in the airport and come earlier to have a good time and shop – and this is all revenue we receive.