Abu Dhabi's airline is hoping the UAE can become a bridge between Europe and holidaymakers' paradise as Etihad Airways begins flying to the Maldives and the Seychelles.
Etihad has launched flights to the exotic, high-end Indian Ocean island destinations before the Eid break next week.
The Abu Dhabi carrier's first flight landed in Malé on a cloudy, humid day in the capital of the Maldives yesterday. Today, it starts operating its first service to the Seychelles.
Etihad expects the flights to be popular among tourists from the UAE and those flying from Europe with a layover in Abu Dhabi.
"We … take our responsibility to bring more people to this part of the world very seriously," said James Hogan, the chief executive of Etihad, referring to the launch of the flights to the Maldives.
Both the Seychelles and Maldives have economies that are heavily dependent on tourism.
The Maldives' GDP last year totalled US$1.48 billion (Dh5.43bn), with tourism directly contributing 29 per cent.
However, its indirect contribution was far higher, according to the bureau of South and Central Asian affairs at the US department of state.
The Seychelles has a GDP of $750 million.
"At a time when the Maldives is recording its highest number of visitors and reaching new markets, this [Etihad service] is fundamental to our continued economic growth," said Simon Hawkins, the managing director of the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation.
The Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world, with a maximum natural height above sea level of less than 2.5 metres. It is made up of almost 1,200 islands grouped into atolls, which include 200 inhabited islands and 97 resort islands.
There are existing ties between Abu Dhabi and the two new destinations for Etihad.
Abu Dhabi urban planners have agreed to help the Seychelles design the archipelago's capital city, while Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, is developing a Viceroy resort in the Maldives.
Europe has long been one of the most important sources of tourists for the Maldives, with the UK and Italy sending the highest number, according to a recent report by Euromonitor International. But the country is increasingly tapping new markets.
"In 2010, Chinese visitors increased by 18 per cent and arrivals from Sri Lanka grew by 32 per cent as the tourist board focused on promoting the Maldives in emerging markets," analysts at Euromonitor said.
UAE travel agents said the destination was popular among their wealthy clients.
"Prices for a one-week holiday typically start from about Dh12,000 per person," said Sunil D'Souza, the regional travel director at Kanoo Travel.
"But there are lower options available. Typically it's high net-worth individuals. The Etihad flights to the Maldives are daily, while the Seychelles service is four times a week to the capital Victoria on Mahe island."
Etihad last month said it was confident it would achieve its break-even target for this year after revenues increased 39 per cent in the third quarter to $1.1bn.