JAKARTA - Asia's largest budget carrier AirAsia will fly directly from Kuala Lumpur to Silangit International Airport near Lake Toba in North Sumatra province from Oct 28, a move officials say will boost Indonesia's plan to develop the lake as one of its 10 New Balis.
The Malaysia-based airline will fly four times a week from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 to Silangit, one of the key gateways to the scenic volcanic lake.
The move will make AirAsia the second airline to offer direct international flights to the Lake Toba airport. Indonesia's state-owned airline Garuda Indonesia opened a Singapore-Silangit flight service in October last year.
Before Silangit airport was opened last year, tourists keen on visiting Lake Toba would land at Kuala Namu Airport in Medan, the North Sumtara capital, and then undertake a six-hour overland journey.
Silangit airport, which was officiated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in November last year, can accommodate 36,000 visitors annually.
AirAsia group chief executive Tony Fernandes said in a statement: "Prior to the development of the Silangit Airport, tourists who want to visit Lake Toba must undergo a six-hour trip by land from Medan. Now, they can fly directly to Silangit and reach Lake Toba in just one hour."
The Silangit airport is among the infrastructure enhanced by the Joko administration to develop alternative tourism hot spots across the world's biggest archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.
These include Lake Toba, Tanjung Kelayang Beach in Bangka Belitung Islands, Borobudur Temple in Central Java, Mandalika in West Nusa Tenggara, Labuan Bajo in East Nusa Tenggara, and Morotai Island in North Maluku.
The new destinations are vital to the country's effort to lure 20 million tourist arrivals by next year and boost the revenue from the tourism sector.
Indonesia attracted 14.04 million foreign tourists last year, lower than the 15 million targeted partly due to the eruption of Mount Agung in Bali. In the first half of this year, the country has welcomed 7.53 million tourists, according to figures from Central Statistics Agency.
Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan welcomed AirAsia's initiative to launch direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Silangit.
"AirAsia intends to make Silangit a hub for visitors from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, China and India, so that they can fly from there to any destinations (in Indonesia)," he said in a separate statement on Thursday.
Mr Luhut added that investments are coming to support the rise of tourism around Silangit, pointing out a significant one from Australia to build a high-end hotel.
Apart from Silangit, AirAsia is also eyeing other local airports, such as Banyuwangi Airport in East Java, to turn into a local hub, Mr Luhut said.
Separately, just-retired Transportation Ministry's Air Transportation director-general Agus Santoso told The Straits Times that he expects AirAsia to bring more tourists from Kuala Lumpur, one of Asia's tourism hubs, into Indonesia and gradually allow Lake Toba to become a famous tourism site in Asia.
"It will further enhance the connectivity to Lake Toba, adding to what the domestic flights have done," he said.