THE Mactan Cebu International Airport (MCIA) is aiming to hit 8.9 million arrivals by end of 2016, following the introduction of new international and domestic flights to Cebu, top officials of GMR-Megawide Cebu Airport Corp. (GMCAC) said.

Four new international routes have already been launched this year—Cebu-Los Angeles (via Philippine Airlines); Cebu-Dubai (Emirates); Cebu-Xiamen (Xiamen Air); and Cebu-Taipei (Eva Air). Direct connections to Cebu will get a boost with the addition of Thai Smile by end of this year.

Andrew Harrison, GMCAC chief executive advisor, said in a statement that the company is in discussions with Thai Smile, the regional affiliate of Thai Airways International, for a direct daily service from Cebu to Bangkok, slated for launching in November this year.

“Thai Smile is just awaiting regulatory approval,” Harrison said.

More Thai tourists are expected to visit the Philippines following Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo’s recent visit to Thailand.

The Department of Tourism (DOT) said that the Philippines has embarked on an “exchange tourism” agreement with Thailand in farm tourism, youth development, and women and indigenous community projects.

The Thai Travel Agents Association is scheduled to visit the Philippines in September for the Philippine Travel Exposition (PHITEX) and tour the cities of Cebu, Davao and Cagayan de Oro.

Meanwhile, existing foreign airlines Cathay Pacific and Silk Air have increased frequency of existing routes from Cebu to Hong Kong and Singapore. Cathay Pacific now has 10 flights out of Cebu while Silk Air has 12 flights out of Cebu.

On the domestic front, Cebu Pacific (CEB) announced it will open in November three new routes to boost connectivity in the Visayas island.

Starting Nov. 19, CEB will launch daily flights between Cebu and Ormoc and Cebu and Roxas; and four times weekly (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) between Cebu and Calbayog using ATR 72-500 aircraft.

In 2015, over 4.4 million passengers were flown to and from Cebu. Cebu routes cover about 24.5 percent of CEB’s seat capacity last year. With the addition of the three new routes, CEB now has 25 domestic routes in Cebu, which will cater to the increasing travel demand.

GMCAC, the private company operating MCIA, is actively marketing the airport as a gateway to southern Philippines by pursuing new and diverse routes for Cebu through marketing campaigns and detailed route analysis all geared towards increasing travel and tourism to Cebu and the Visayas-Mindanao regions.

These efforts, according to the company, help ensure the long term sustainability and economic and social benefits for the passengers and the businesses.

GMCAC is targeting new routes connecting Cebu to Australia and Bangkok, as well as expand connections to China, Japan and South Korea.

Ravishankar Saravu, GMCAC chief commercial advisor, during the 888 News Forum, said they are eyeing to open a Cebu-Doha flight where there is potential traffic of business, leisure and the overseas Filipino market.

More than 222,000 Filipino expatriates are now working in Qatar, an increase of over 34,000 from last year’s 188,000, according to the Philippine embassy. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration reports that the average annual number of deployed land-based Filipino expatriates to Qatar ranged between 94,000 and 114,000 from 2011 to 2014.

Savaru said GMCAC is also working with the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and human resource recruitment agencies to make it easy for overseas Filipino workers to travel directly from Cebu.

“Cebu has so much to offer as a tourist and investment destination. It has natural beauty, history and culture and a strong emerging economy. This is the experience we want to share with the international market,” said Louie Ferrer, GMCAC president.

MCIA currently caters to 12 international destinations and 23 domestic destinations.

Aviation research firm Center for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) said that MCIA is one of the fastest-growing airports in Asia, having recorded 16 percent growth to eight million passengers in 2015 versus 2014.

It is expected to continue its double-digit growth this year, on the back of local and foreign expansions.