The withdrawal of Malaysia Airlines from South Africa last month in order to concentrate on more profitable routes is a blow to tourism authorities who are aiming at increased contact between this country and South America.

Malaysia Airlines has flown between Johannesburg and Cape Town and Argentinian capital Buenos Aires for 20 years and brought many Argentinians to South African during the soccer World Cup in 2010.

SAA also flies between Johannesburg and Buenos Aires. However, SAA no longer stops in Cape Town en route in line with its policy of developing Johannesburg as its main hub for international travel.

The Malaysian airline has now dropped South Africa and other destinations including Rome, Karachi and Dubai, as part of a cost-cutting exercise, although staff are remaining in its Johannesburg offices until at least the end of this month to switch passengers with existing bookings to other airlines including SAA or to refund their fares.

Calvyn Gilfellan, chief executive of Western Cape regional tourism authority, who accompanied Nelson de Oliveira, SAA's regional manager in South America, in a marketing programme that included Brazil and Argentina in September, said he was surprised and disappointed by the Malaysian airline's withdrawal in view of plans to stimulate the South American market through sporting and cultural activities.

He would ask SAA to reconsider its decision not to stop in Cape Town en route to Buenos Aires.

Skye Grove, communications manager of Cape Town Tourism, commented: “The loss of direct flights from Cape Town to Buenos Aires by Malaysia Airlines is of great significance as we begin to tap into new and emerging markets in South America. We have seen an increase in Brazilian and Argentinian tourists to Cape Town over the recent festive season and believe that direct flights from popular South American routes would be a great benefit to tourism in Cape Town.”

Gilfellan said SAA's decision to concentrate all overseas flights except those to London in Johannesburg was based on a presumption that demand for business class and first class seats, which are more profitable for airlines than selling economy class seats, was limited mainly to Johannesburg.

But foreign airlines who had carried out research found it profitable to fly to Cape Town too and an increasing number were doing so.

Malaysian Airlines was the only airline apart from SAA to fly directly to South America from South Africa.

It has also flown between Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur but its rival Singapore Airlines flies from both Johannesburg and Cape Town and Singapore is a short distance by road from Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian Airlines has reduced its network after a cumulative loss of about R3.26 billion over the past six months but aims at building up customers on its most profitable routes with a fleet of new generation, fuel-economic aircraft. - Audrey D'Angelo