Solomon Airlines' future flight path

When Solomon Airlines’ first flight from Brisbane direct to Munda in the Western Province touched down on 30 March this year, unanimous cheering from passengers drowned out the Airbus A320’s engines.

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(Left to right): Brian Halasinau CAASI Director, John Muria Attorney General, Chris Hapa Chairman of Investment Corporation of Solomon Islands, Brett Gebers CEO Solomon Airlines, Moses Virivolomo Permanent Secretary Ministry of Communication and Aviation and McKinnie Dentana, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Finance and Treasury.

Solomon Airlines

The Saturday flight, in just under three hours was history in the making, opening a new international gateway and exciting future possibilities - an understanding shared by all on board.

"Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to Munda, this is an exciting day, made possible by a huge amount of work by many, many people," said Solomon Airlines CEO Brett Gebers, speaking over the aircraft announcement system.

"I think we should start by acknowledging The Honourable Don Higgins New Zealand High Commissioner. Without the New Zealand Government's input here, the runway would never have been resurfaced, the lights and navigation aides would never have been installed, the New Zealand Government also provided the fire engines.

"We also thank the Government of the Solomon Islands, thank you to Moses Virivolomo Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Communication and Aviation and team for all your hard work in getting the essential Munda terminal building established and surroundings cleared.

"I think we have all seen now that it is less than three hours from Brisbane to Munda. I am assured that within four hours of leaving Brisbane you can be out diving and that is in 31°C seawater all year round in unspoilt beauty, undeveloped and uncrowded, fantastic coral reefs, caves to go diving in and of course - amazing fishing and surfing."

More cheers erupted from the full flight of divers, fisherman and surfers, expat community, government, aviation and tourism officials, and media representatives from Australia and the Solomon Islands. Tourism officials and local operators welcomed the new service as a potential "major catalyst for increased international visitation to the destination".

"The Brisbane-Munda flight it will act as a catalyst for increased confidence in the Western Province's tourism future, in the process attracting major investment in much needed infrastructure," said Tourism Solomons Chief Executive Josefa ‘Jo' Tuamoto.

"In particular, we are confident the new service will stimulate investment in good quality accommodation inventory which the Western Province and for that matter, the entire destination, so desperately needs."

The direct international flight is also augmented by Solomon Airlines' domestic services to Gizo, Seghe in the Marovo Lagoon and Suavanao on Santa Isabel, all operated with de Havilland Canada Dash 8 and de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft.

Solomon Airlines CEO Brett Gebers presents a Brisbane-Munda First Flight Certificate to His Excellency Don Higgins, New Zealand's High Commissioner to Solomon Islands.Solomon Airlines CEO Brett Gebers presents a Brisbane-Munda First Flight Certificate to His Excellency Don Higgins, New Zealand's High Commissioner to Solomon Islands.


Tourist infrastructure development fund

Under CEO Brett Gebers, Solomon Airlines has started the ball rolling on investments, establishing the non-profit, standalone Solomon Islands Tourist Infrastructure Development Fund. The fund was set up to assist operators in the Western Province with interest free loans to initially improve the standard of the accommodation on offer and later to assist with additions where feasible. Solomon Airlines made the initial contribution and this was followed up by a grant from the New Zealand Government of NZ$1million to the fund.

The New Zealand Government has already spent over NZ$20 million in the last few years, to develop local tourism.

Already, loans have been made to three local businesses, including Munda's Agnes Gateway Hotel, Titiru Lodge and Zipolo Habu Lodge.

Belinda Botha, Dive Munda Operations Director, is excited about the new international service which, she said, should triple her business by making it quicker and cheaper for foreign visitors.

"This new flight means we can have visitors in the water four hours after they leave Australia," she said.

"When we launched Dive Munda in 2016, we saw around 200 guests come through annually. We have since been able to double that number every single year and with this wonderful new flight, we're hoping to triple that."

Ms Botha believes the new service will raise the profile of her region and make it a more competitive destination which goes head to head with Australia's Barrier Reef and rival islands, including Fiji.

Ms Botha said local accommodation capacity has already been increased by around 40 percent to meet the anticipated growth. "Obviously, many more accommodation options are needed, but we are all aligned and we're working on it," she said.

Solomon Airlines Airbus A320 aircraft.Solomon Airlines Airbus A320 aircraft.


Tourism growth will reduce a reliance on resource exports

Looking forward, Tourism Solomons Josefa Tuamoto is hoping demand can eventually support as many as three direct flights a week. This, he said, would boost tourism's economic contribution and reduce the island nation's reliance on fishing and resource exports.

"Business travel is quite strong, but what's lacking is the leisure market. We want to shift the balance - taking leisure from 30 percent to at least 60 percent of the market," he said. For Brett Gebers and Solomon Airlines, the new service is not about huge revenue growth or profits, but rather about supporting sustainable tourism development.

"Currently visitor numbers to SI are steady but static at around 27,000 each year. It can be greater and together we have made a start," he said. "The logging industry now accounts for some 70 per cent of export earnings but logging is a finite resource which will eventually decline, so tourism development is an economic necessity.

"To achieve sustainable growth, we must hasten slowly to expand air access in concert with developing our infrastructure to comfortably accommodate visitors. The current seat availability to and from the Solomon Islands exceeds the available accommodation.

From its Honiara base, Solomon Airlines network is growing slowly. Domestic flights now operate to 21 domestic destinations using four Twin Otters and the airline's sole Dash 8.

International flights to Brisbane, Fiji, Vanuatu and Kiribati utilise the airline's Airbus A320, and codeshare flights to other destinations extend the network in conjunction with Fiji Airways, Air Niugini, Air Vanuatu, Qantas Airways and Air Kiribati.

"We are all partners with a collective vision, of improving connectivity to and within the South Pacific Islands. We all understand that connectivity facilitates business which will ultimately grow the economy in this area and eventually have a positive effect on the airlines" he said.

"The Solomon Islands has enormous potential as a tourism destination as it is unspoiled and uncrowded. Growth will be developed and sustainably managed via greater awareness about the destination, increased air access and appropriate infrastructure development," he said.

In July this year, Tourism Solomons and Solomon Airlines jointly boosted awareness launching the first ever Solomon Islands Australian TV and digital advertising campaign across the Seven Network's 7, 7mate, 7two and 7flix channels and on You Tube. The campaign positions the Solomon Islands as the world's newest ‘must visit' destination.

Meanwhile, Solomon Airlines is updating both its domestic and international fleet and has started with refurbishing its domestic fleet starting with its Twin Otter aircraft. The Airline is also looking at acquiring newer Twin Otters.

Approximately 90 per cent of the airline's domestic operations use the Twin Otters, with just six airstrips capable of taking its sole Bombardier DHC-8 aircraft. Like many Pacific Island states, most of the inter-island flying is done in daylight due to the lack of night flying facilities.

The company is also reviewing replacements for its A320 aircraft and looking to strengthen its partnership with codeshare partner Qantas to include its direct same-day Brisbane-MundaBrisbane service.

"We have a very clear vision for the airline. We are committed to building a stronger, larger national carrier to benefit the people of the Solomon Islands ultimately offering new opportunities for future generations," he said.