Eritrean Airlines Boeing 767-238(ER) – Photo Credit: Paul Morris
What need to be done to become a tool for nation branding?
Branding a nation is a complex concept that remains new to the African continent. It allows a country to sell its image through strategic communication. In the globalized world, being able to brand a nation can attract investment and tourism. Airlines companies, thus, have been useful in branding a nation by promoting a country’s hospitality, for instance. Like other nations, Eritrea needs to promote its image through different tools including its airline company.
After the announcement made by Eritrean Airlines of the commencement of its flights to various cities in the region and to Europe including discounts, (despite not being able to reach the civil aviation) I just decided to walk to the travel agency of the airlines right by the Cathedral at the city centre in Asmara. From the outside, the office looks attractive with posters showing destinations and prices. But inside the quite vast office was somehow empty. A young man was sitting behind his computer and he was actually the only one who noticed me standing there waiting for someone to welcome me.
I went to the airline’s office as a customer asking for prices and destinations. The young man was busy working on a stack of papers, so he quickly referred me to one of his colleagues “can you please give her the price list?” he asked kindly. She seemed bothered “I am working on something else”, she replied. But I stood there and kept asking and she finally gave me the prices and some other information. One can imagine my first impression in the first five minutes at the office.
A one-way ticket to Assab costs 1,000 Nakfa. For the trip back to Asmara, travellers have to buy a ticket in Assab. Juba, Khartoum, Dubai are other destinations offered. In the advertisement published in local newspapers, it showed Rome-Asmara and Cairo-Asmara are included. I was surprised to find that there are no flights to Rome but Milan; it was a mistake in the advertisement.
Nevertheless, Milan is a good destination for the airline as many in Europe can easily travel to Milan to fly with Eritrean Airlines. I remember a few years back when flights to Europe used to be packed, especially during the summer holidays. Many members of my family actually chose the airlines and always shared the great hospitality on board of the flights. The suspension of all flights was a disappointment to the people.
Eritrean Airlines was founded in 1991 and began its operations in April 2003 but discontinued in 2008. It restarted in 2011 under a new management in which Nasair, a privately owned company, merged with Eritrean Airlines. However, all routes to Europe were suspended in 2012. The sanctions imposed on Eritrea and the flying conditions had impacted Eritrea’s only international airline company. The resumption of flights by Eritrean Airlines to Europe provides more options to travellers. However, there are some hick-ups I have witnessed such as last minute changes of date of flight, making tourists and Eritrean diaspora angry as their stay in Eritrea is abruptly cut short against their wish, for example.
Going back to the few minutes exchange with the travel agent, a return ticket to Milan costs travellers 602 US dollars, to Cairo 670 US dollars and to Dubai 450 US dollars. Although I had more questions to ask, the agent was in a rush to close our conversation by saying, “Are we done now?” Wow, very attractive! The price is fine for Milan; however, it does not seem to be at that competitive price with foreign airlines companies operating in the country. Besides there is only one flight to and from Milan on Saturdays. This may be risky for a traveller who needs to change his/her flights as he/she would have to wait a minimum of seven days to board on the next flight. Other airlines have at least three to four flights a week. However, Eritreans like their brand and I believe that with good customer services and lowered prices, the company will be popular.
After the very short experience at Eritrean Airlines office, many would wonder why write about it. Actually, the idea here is not to criticise the company but instead to show that a little experience of one customer can impact the image of the company as a whole. Thus, the young company needs to strengthen its customer services by, for instance, having a unique uniform. In addition to giving high quality customer services, once those aspects are taken seriously, business will be a success and flights may increase with time. Eritrean Airlines can be seen as a tool for branding the nation as it flies on international airspace with the Eritrean flag. Its role is much bigger than just flying; it is important for the tourism industry and nation branding.
According to the Anhold-GFK Roper Nation Brands Index (2013:8) ranking 50 nation brands, a nation brand depends on the overall perception of a country according to six areas including governance, exports, investment, tourism, people and culture. On the African continent, nation branding remains unutilised and few countries have endorsed as part of their policies.
The continent has been suffering from negative reputation made by outsiders for far too long and obviously, for Eritrea too, it is of concern. Branding a nation, is about communicating strategically to promote a country aiming at boosting investment, tourism and development. Eritrea could use its airline company to promote the nation as part of a broader strategy, understood by policy makers, in shifting the reputation that the world has created around the country.
Communication is key to branding the nation through a good marketing strategy of its airline. According to Ngozika Amalu’s research paper entitled Nation Branding in a More Competitive Africa (May 2013), strong logo, slogans, magazines and the presence on social media platform are part of nation branding. Actually, with Asmara entering the UNESCO World Heritage list, the airline business can take it as an advantage to attract people to come to Eritrea. Through strengthened and improved communications, the airline could grow and, one day, Asmara International Airport could become an important transit point between Gulf countries and the African continent.
Eritrean Airlines can be one instrument among many others in branding Eritrea. The country would own its image and reputation to the international rather than letting others portraying the image of Eritrea and its people. In other words, Eritrean Airlines isn’t just an airline company but the only Eritrean flag carrier on international routes transporting the reputation of the whole nation.