When we think of tourist spots in China, familiar destinations that spring to mind are Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Not many living outside China have ever heard of Wuhan in Hubei province – but as central China’s biggest city with a population of 10 million, Wuhan has a diverse and booming economy and is recognised as a key financial, educational, scientific and transportation hub.
This week, Air France became the first European airline to serve Wuhan directly, with three-times weekly flights from its hub at Paris Charles de Gaulle.
While not a natural drawcard for tourists, Wuhan is home to some scenic and historic attractions, such as the East Lake (the largest in a Chinese city), Yellow Crane Tower, Donghu national park and Hubei Provincial Museum. It’s also the gateway to the famous Three Gorges Project – the hydroelectric dam project in the Yangtze River.
For Air France, the new route to Wuhan – home to China’s third largest cluster of universities and a number of international companies – will bring economic benefits to France by boosting trade and tourism links between the two countries.
With Air France now serving five Chinese cities, the carrier made a point of emphasising that London Heathrow only serves three Chinese cities directly – to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.
Supporters of a third runway at Heathrow – which PM David Cameron stressed isn’t going to happen under his leadership during a news interview this week – continue to argue that the UK is losing out to other European hub airports with its lack of direct links with the world’s fastest growing major economy.
Air France’s new route also comes at a time when BA has begun consultations around plans to integrate BMI into its operations.
The takeover will give BA more than half the take-off and landing slots at Heathrow and an opportunity to develop new direct routes between London and China.
Heathrow – which is bursting at the seams – will see one new direct route to China open this year, with China Southern Airlines starting flights on June 6 to Guangzhou – China’s third largest city.
But the London hub says it continues to lose out to other European airports which have more runways and room for growth.
By the end of this year, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam airports will have added new direct flights to Wuhan, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Nanjing, Shenyang and Qingdao.
There is still space to offer more flights to China from other UK airports – such from London Gatwick, which will see Air China open a new direct route to Beijing in May.