The UAE's national carrier is hoping Chinese retail giant, Ali Baba, turns into just what it needs to gain greater access to the world's largest economy.
After agreeing to promote China's annual 11.11 shopping festival, the largest of its kind in the world, with livery on aircraft that fly to 40 destinations around the world, Etihad earlier this week signed an agreement with e-commerce platform, Ali Baba, to allow its customers to trade loyalty points on purchases for Etihad Guest miles.
The Abu-Dhabi based airline has also opened its booking system to payments from Ali Baba's payment platform, Ali Pay.
The developments come as Etihad works overtime to plug a gap in its network that former CEO James Hogan first identified last year. "With the exception of China, there aren’t too many gaps that we have in the network," he told journalists ahead of last year's International Air Transport Association annual general meeting.
Etihad's first step in filling that gap was a codeshare deal with China Southern Airlines in June to fly customers to Shangai and Chengdu from Abu Dhabi. Travellers on Etihad will then be able to fly on with the Chinese carrier to secondary airports within China or countries further East.
China has been a tough and "competitive" market for Etihad so far, according to executive vice president, Mohammad al Bulooki, adding new visa on arrival services will help promote the UAE and Abu Dhabi as business and leisure destinations.
China trumped India and Russia this year to become the number one source of tourists into Abu Dhabi earlier this year; over 100,000 tourists from the country flocked to Abu Dhabi in the first three months of 2017.
There are over 750 million internet users in the country, and Ali Baba commands the attention of 520 million active users on its platform. Etihad is hoping it can tap into that market to boost the number of travellers on its aircraft even further, says Bulooki.
"There is an impressive and growing number of Chinese outbound travellers exploring new destinations and unique experiences," says Bulooki." "Also, the volume of goods transportation generated on ecommerce platforms has been amazing. We believe cooperation with Alibaba Group will better consolidate our product and service advantages as well as enhance our brand awareness and jointly optimise our products and services."