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Vikings are renowned for having opened the first routes across the Atlantic, settling in the land that we now call Canada. Fast forward a few centuries, and their descendants in Iceland are trying to make connections across the ocean again.
Tiny Iceland, population 350,000, continues to punch well above its weight when it comes to cross-ocean travel. Having carved for themselves a respectable niche in the North Atlantic market, Icelandic airlines are now on the offensive on more distant shores. Specifically, they are after Macaronesia — which is neither a far-flung tropical paradise, nor some kind of pasta. It is an imagined “region” formed by four Atlantic archipelagos — the Azores, the Canaries, Madeira and Cape Verde — that are relatively close to the European mainland.
This collection of islands is renowned, among the initiated, for its great natural beauty and biodiversity. But not many people know them yet. Aside from the Canaries, long a holiday destination for Europeans thanks to plentiful flights and being part of Spain, Macaronesia is not exactly on the tourism map. The Azores and Madeira, both part of Portugal, are making their way into more and more itineraries, but the independent nation of Cape Verde is still relatively unknown.
But Icelandic aviation executives see opportunity there, and they’re putting their money into Macaronesia.
Icelandair is in talks to buy 49% of Azores Airlines from the Azores’ autonomous regional government, which currently owns it. The deadline to present offers has been extended to July 26. Though financially ailing, Azores Airlines has new Airbus A321neo jets on order, which can easily reach the US East Coast and Midwest, and it has been developing its own mid-Atlantic hub with nonstop flights between the Portuguese archipelago and three US cities: Boston, Providence and Oakland. The latter is served with a long-haul Airbus A330. If it sounds like a familiar model — flying relatively small jets to an island destination that’s jumping from unknown to hip — that’s because it is: Icelandair and the other Icelandic long-hauler, WOW Air, have been at it for a while now.
The Azores, known for their lush greenery and superb whale spotting, have seen visitor numbers going up in recent years. In addition to Azores Airlines and Portugal’s biggest airline, TAP, the islands have also attracted the likes of Ryanair and Delta Air Lines, which launched a seasonal flight between New York JFK and Ponta Delgada (PDL). The number of overnight stays has more than doubled since 2012, to more than 2.3 million per year, growing at a rate of more than 20% in the past three years. The secret is out. (We’ve made one of our Trip-Spiration videos about the islands. As for getting there on points and miles, we’ve got you covered.)
Cape Verde, on the other hand, remains a relatively little-visited destination. And the Icelanders are there too, having just agreed with the government to manage Cabo Verde Airlines and turn it around.
This former Portuguese territory, located about 1,000 miles south of the Azores and 200 miles off the coast of West Africa, has a lot going for it: some of the best development indicators in Africa, pristine seas and a rich cultural heritage.
Yet, despite visitor numbers up more than 11% in 2017, at slightly over half a million international arrivals per year, Cape Verde is far from fulfilling its tourism potential and the lack of air links may have a lot to do with this state of affairs.
This has not always been the case.
Amilcar Cabral International Airport on Sal island (SID), Cape Verde’s main air gateway, used to be kind of an aviation hotspot. Built with Italian assistance just before World War II to provide a refueling stop for flights between Italy and Latin America, it became a popular place to stop for gas for early-generation airliners that didn’t have ocean-crossing range. Aeroflot and Cubana, flying Soviet jets that lacked long-haul legs, used to stop there. So did South African Airways, when South Africa’s apartheid regime was shunned by most other nations and SAA flights to Europe could not overfly Africa — so they had to go around the continent, burning fuel, and stop in SID to fill up.
The development of more capable, longer-range airliners ended Cape Verde’s role as a key stopover point. The restructuring of the Cape Verdian commercial aviation industry that is currently underway holds some promise, though.
The arrival of the Icelanders has meant the rebranding of TACV as Cabo Verde Airlines as well as the introduction of new aircraft (ex-Icelandair Boeing 757s) that will facilitate the expansion of a route network that spans several continents.
Cabo Verde Airlines’ revamped route map includes Fortaleza, Recife and Salvador in North-Eastern Brazil; Lisbon, Paris – Orly, Milan – Malpensa and Rome in Europe; and Boston in the US, home to a lot of Cape Verdian emigrants.
As part of this new strategy, Cabo Verde Airlines has also given up its domestic and short-haul routes that have been taken over by Spanish airline Binter, which connects the Cape Verde islands with a fleet of ATR 72 turboprops. It is also planning to launch some routes to Guinea Bissau and Senegal on the African continent before the end of the year.
So is Cape Verde set to become the new Azores? As one of the most tourism-dependent economies in the world, it would very much benefit from it. In the meantime, the islands of Macaronesia seem bound to become an unlikely hotspot of the global airline industry.
Featured image of a dolphin off the coast of Sao Miguel Island in the Azores by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images
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