Budget airlines spread their wings to Africa

When easyJet's first flight took off from Luton airport in 1995, the founder's claim that everyone in Europe would be flying on a low-cost airline within 10 years seemed far-fetched.

Now the successful company set up by Stelios Haji-Ioannou has pushed the boundaries of travel a little further by becoming the first budget airline to fly outside Europe. From Friday, passengers will be offered daily flights to Marrakesh in Morocco, a move predicted to revolutionise tourism in north Africa.

The price for daily flights from Gatwick to Marrakesh start at £30.99 and are likely to prompt easyJet's main rivals Ryanair to contemplate a similar move.

Andy Harrison, the chief executive officer of easyJet, said: "People are flying further and further, and looking for more interesting places to go. They don't ask whether it is inside Europe or outside. They ask what the fare is and what a place has to offer. Marrakesh is certainly an attractive destination."

EasyJet is confident that cheap flights will revolutionise north Africa as a holiday destination. A scheduled flight to Marrakesh costs more than £200.

The city, a popular destination on the hippie trail in the 1960s, now attracts celebrities such as the designer Sadie Frost and the singer Damon Albarn. Attractions include the labyrinthine medina, bazaars and sultans' palaces. The city, known as the pearl of the south, has attracted visitors since it was a trading place on the crossroads of ancient caravan routes. Fodor's travel guide describes the Djemâa el Fna, where snake charmers, monkey-keepers and healers perform, as the most exuberant market place in the world.

Budget airlines have mainly operated within the EU, where an open-skies agreement means any airline can fly to any country. Outside the EU, bilateral agreements operate, so existing airlines have rights over any deals for operating slots at airports.

An easyJet spokeswoman said the simplicity and strong market in Europe had guaranteed success, but she pointed out that countries outside the EU were becoming enthusiastic about low-cost airlines, as they realised the potential revenue to be gained from the tourism increase. She said travellers were more adventurous, and easyJet had consequently expanded its flight routes across eastern Europe. From Friday, it will include Istanbul in Turkey and Rijeka in Croatia among its routes.

EasyJet assumes that leisure passengers will account for the overwhelming majority of traffic on the route. Across the route network as a whole, the split is around 20 per cent business to 80 per cent leisure.

Ryanair will now consider whether to follow its rival across continents. Caroline Baldwin, the deputy head of sales and marketing for Ryanair, said: "We see significant growth and opportunities in Europe, and plan to double our size over the next five years across the continent."

Neither airline is considering expanding into long-haul. Samantha Day, the press manager for easyJet, said: "Long-haul is not in our business model - it would be mixing drinks a bit."

EasyJet says it expects profits to climb by at least 5 per cent this year, helped by 15 new planes and higher sales of "ancillary" products such as travel insurance and car hire. Profits for the airline were £68m in the 12 months to October 2005, up £6m on the year before.

How cheap air travel took off

* Freddie Laker's Skytrain DC-10s flew from Gatwick to New York in 1977 for £59 each way. The company folded in 1982.

* Ryanair adopted no-frills in 1991 and easyJet in 1995.

* EasyJet now flies 10,000 people a day around Europe and employs 3,000 crew.

* About 95 per cent of easyJet's tickets are booked online.

* EasyJet flies more passengers between the UK and Spain than BA and Iberia combined.

* Ryanair has grown from one daily flight on a 15-seater to 35 million passengers a year.

* The Government wants to double air passenger numbers by 2030.