Last Sunday morning, the first charter flight from Bulgaria landed at the Moi International Airport (MIA) Mombasa with 177 tourists.
The flight graced the newly refurbished airport at exactly 8:57am, bringing cheer to a tourism industry that is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The refurbishment, according to Kenya Airports Authority (KAA), cost Sh7.5 billion.
Speaking in Mombasa, KAA Coast Regional Manager Peter Wafula said the airport will now attract major international airlines.
He said the upgrade involved replacing the existing airfield and ground lighting systems as well as all approach lighting masts with fiberglass from traditional steel.
Upgraded pavements will now have a sustainable maintenance regime to keep the runway and aprons in good condition through a 20-year life-span, while ensuring the airport land is neither undermined nor destroyed because of unstable ground.
The airport green rating is also expected to grow through rain water harvesting initiatives that form part of the upgrade work.
During an earlier interview, KAA Managing Director Alex Gitari said the project has ensured all airport pavements offer safe operations of aircraft while avoiding operational delays occasioned by poor airfield ground lighting systems.
The airport has two runways: one that is 3,350 metres long and 45 metres wide, while the other is 1,260 metres long and 36 metres wide.
There are 10 taxiways including taxiway A, a parallel path that is 3,564 metres long and 23 metres wide and taxiways B, C and D which are 23 metres wide.
Apart from the Bulgarian flight, there are other charter firms that have defied the pandemic to fly into Mombasa.
They include flights from Romania, Poland and Ukraine. The Bulgarian charter flight was brought by Pollmans Tours and Safaris, a local travel agency, in partnership with Bulgaria firm ABAX Ltd.
Pollmans Tours Director of Operations Mohamed Hersi lauded the airport upgrade. “We are glad that in the middle of Covid-19, we still are able to attract a charter flight,” he said.
European Air Charter, the firm that owns the Bulgarian plane, said the aircraft will be serving the Sofia-Mombasa route up to April 2022 before a new one is released.
Mr Hersi said there are talks with a tour operator from Russia to firm up plans for another charter flight to start services.
He urged the government to consider re-introducing the Charter Incentive Programme (CIP) to boost charter flights to Mombasa.
CIP was launched by the government in 2016 with a Sh1.2 billion kitty. It enabled the government to rake in Sh3.7 billion before it expired in 2019.
The programme aimed at subsidising the cost of tourist flights by charters, stimulating demand for Kenya by new firms while encouraging operators already flying to the country to increase their frequencies.
It also rewarded airlines that made long-term capacity growth commitments to bring tourists to experience Kenya’s beach products.
Under the programme, all tourist charter aircraft with passengers terminating at MIA and Malindi Airport were exempted from landing fees for a period of two-and-a-half years.
A passenger subsidy of $30 (Sh3,406) per seat filled by international passengers who disembarked in Kenya over the same period was the other attractive offer.
Industry players said the success of CIP helped in re-positioning the Coast as a tourism hub.