Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The search for profitable routes has resulted in exotic destinations
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The Independent Travel

Even if you have never visited the Seychelles, I bet the name conjures up agreeable images of the archipelago: the warm Indian Ocean lapping against brochure-perfect sand that leads to a sublime, understated hotel. Picture yourself dining on the veranda at sunset: an exquisitely prepared plate of fresh seafood, followed by an indulgence of tropical fruits.

Even if you have never visited the Seychelles, I bet the name conjures up agreeable images of the archipelago: the warm Indian Ocean lapping against brochure-perfect sand that leads to a sublime, understated hotel. Picture yourself dining on the veranda at sunset: an exquisitely prepared plate of fresh seafood, followed by an indulgence of tropical fruits.

If you have dreamed of wafting to paradise aboard British Airways, you may need to re-adjust your mindset to a diet of cabbage in a big Russian city: Ekaterinburg, so good they named it Sverdlovsk, at least under Communism.

The good news this May Day morning is that this summer you can fly there non-stop from Heathrow: British Airways has added Ekaterinburg to its network. But the bad news is that the airline is to ditch the Seychelles route from July.

British Airways is a soundly run business, so the company must have a good reason to launch flights to a former gold-rush town in the Ural Mountains. It does: black gold. "Ekaterinburg is a business travel route, effectively to support the oil market," says Martin George, BA's marketing director. What about holidaymakers? Mr George calls it "a niche leisure market." Looking at the fares the airline is charging for the five-hour flight, that is some understatement. BA's lowest economy ticket costs £499 return. This month or next that would buy you a flight to the other side of the world and back.

So why would anyone choose to visit the foothills of the Urals? Its sole claim to international fame is as the location for the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family while under house-arrest in 1918. My experience of the city consists of trips through the airport, so I missed the official monument marking the border between Europe and Asia, 25 miles outside the city. But Anton Chekhov's report was hardly inspiring: "In Russia all the towns are alike," he wrote. "Ekaterinburg is exactly the same as Perm or Tula." Except, he added, for the locals, who "inspire the newcomer with a feeling akin to horror. They are big-browed, big-jawed, broad-shouldered fellows with huge fists and tiny eyes".

Boris Yeltsin was born in Ekaterinburg - or, more precisely, Sverdlovsk, as the Soviet city was known. (Ekaterinburg was originally named for Ekaterina, the wife of Peter the Great. Back in the USSR, this was clearly not a good thing, so it was renamed for Yakov Sverdlovsk, the commissar who allegedly signed the telegrams ordering the royal family's executions.)

For a more positive view, I consulted Neil McGowan, the boss of the pioneering tour operator The Russia Experience. He visited the city last month, so I asked him to rate the Ekaterinburg Experience in terms of watersports, nightlife and friendliness. Can it bear comparison with the Indian Ocean idyll? "In lieu of a beach (the sea being thousands of kilometres away), they're building a new Aqua-Park - 'not to Turkish plans', they muttered grimly. I visited the vast new shopping and entertainment centre where the Aqua-Park will be added. While you're waiting there are sushi bars, pizza parlours, and a 24-hour bowling alley.

"The city has a legendary nightlife and rock-music scene, and cutting-edge clubs like Malachite feature Manchester DJs, eye-popping dancers, and a weekly 'Miss Transvestite Beauty' contest." You don't get that on Fregat in the Seychelles. And the people? "Outgoing and cheerful," reports Mr McGowan. "So much so that our local guides keep marrying the clients. I wish they'd at least work a full season before getting hitched."

The new service is operated in BA's colours by a franchise company, British Mediterranean. With the new route, the airline may regret being named after a body of water, just as Virgin Atlantic or Cathay Pacific are puzzling names for airlines that fly between the UK and Hong Kong. The carrier's other new route, which also started this summer, at least flies over the Med. The destination: Khartoum in Sudan. The new flight from Heathrow to a battle-scarred nation in east Africa complements BA's service to Luanda on the western flank. This took off in October, just as the link with San Diego was ditched. A southern Californian city with the most benevolent climate in the world has been ousted from the schedules by the Angolan capital, thanks to the nation's oil and diamond wealth.

Still, the prices for Khartoum look more tempting than those to Russia. I was quoted £393 return for the maiden flight from Heathrow to Khartoum. Happily, BA this weekend launches flights to a range of attractive destinations. In particular, the route from Gatwick to Bastia in Corsica will unlock this beautiful island for £159 return - and open up Crawley for the Corsicans.

What of the Seychelles? BA's Martin George says the airline could not make enough money from the route. "We are in a constrained world. We have a limited number of aircraft, and limited slots at Heathrow. We have had to make some tough decisions about which to serve, and that includes the Seychelles. We can't serve the islands as profitably as other markets."

Virgin Atlantic has made a similar shift in emphasis. In the wake of 11 September 2001, the airline dropped its flights to Chicago and Toronto. When business picked up, Sir Richard Branson did not re-start these key routes; instead, he chose to fly from Gatwick to Port Harcourt - Nigeria's main oil city. "We are going into places that we think will be more immediately profitable rather than going into places that on a short-term basis will lose money," he told me before the launch. "We are basically trying to rebuild the resources of Virgin Atlantic and be prudent."

And Air France has launched a range of flights to similarly tourist-free locations: Pointe Noire in Congo, Malabo in Equatorial Guinea and Kish Island in Iran. Half the customers are from the British Isles, but Bernard Anquez, the airline's UK general manager, conceded few are leisure travellers. "The fares structure is designed for the oil and gas industries." Indeed, the "break-even point" for the flights requires only half the seats to be filled.

* Just in case you are tempted, I checked out Kish Island on the internet. The closest I could find to a tourist site, www.kfzo.com, describes the main attraction. It is a shipwreck. "A Greek steamship named Koula F was stranded on 25 July 1966 and since then lies silently in the western extremity of Kish. Watching the sunset behind the Greek ship is an unforgettable and everlasting memory." In comparison, even Ekaterinburg sounds seductive.

* Prague's new Museum of Communism has plastered advertisments on lamp-posts in the Czech capital. The diirections given to prospective visitors are a sign of these capitalist times: "Above McDonald's, next to the Casino".

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