Answer to Map #63

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Answer: This week’s map was a proportional symbol map depicting the largest airports in Africa, sized according to the total number of passengers who passed through in 2013.

We found airport passenger data from 2013 freely available on the website of France’s Ecole National de l’Aviation Civile. The city names are written in French, but it’s better than paying for the data from the Airports Council International, which is the usual source.

On our map, the biggest red circle indicates airports with more than 16 million passengers per year. The next circles, in orange, indicate airports with more than 8 million passengers per year. Each successively smaller circle refers to airports with half as many passengers. That means that the smallest purple circles indicate airports with more than 125,000 passengers—much, much smaller than the biggest circles.

By a considerable margin, the busiest airport in Africa is O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2013, that airport served 18.9 million passengers. It makes sense that Johannesburg would have an especially busy airport by African standards. South Africa is one of the richest countries in Africa. It also has several big cities in different parts of the country, so many people take planes from one city to another. The route between Johannesburg and Cape Town is the sixth busiest air travel route in the world, with 700 flights per week.

The next busiest airports on the continent of Africa are in Cairo (13.8 million passengers per year) and Addis Ababa (8.9 million). These two airports serve capital cities of very populous countries.

When we made this map, we decided to include a few airports that are geographically part of Africa, but which would normally be included on lists of Europe. The Canary Islands, which are part of Spain, are a huge tourist destination for visitors coming from Europe. The airport on the island of Tenerife serves 12.2 million passengers per year (good for #3 overall on our map—fewer than Cairo but more than Addis Ababa), while the airport in Las Palmas serves 9.8 million passengers per year. The large dots in the Canary Islands are a reminder that Africa’s aviation industry has a long way to go to match Europe.

We added a few dots to this map to represent airports that were not included in our data. Among the cities whose airports we added were Khartoum and Harare. For some reason, it is difficult to find reliable data from these cities, but we found some estimates. Khartoum is an interesting case, if only because several surveys have ranked it the worst airport in Africa. If you look for photos of the Khartoum airport on Google image search, you may discover that this ranking is plausible. Fortunately, Khartoum is getting a new airport. A state-owned Chinese company is building a new airport, which the Sudanese government is financing in part with a $700 million loan from a state-run Chinese bank. Since Sudan is the subject of U.S. sanctions, it is difficult for Western companies to do business there. Instead, Chinese investors dominate the oil industry in Sudan. The Chinese companies that do business in Sudan are particularly interested in the country having a functioning airport.

Wednesday’s hint mentioned the very large dots in small cities in Egypt, including Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh. These cities are major beach resorts on the Red Sea that host many visitors from Europe. Unfortunately, Egypt’s tourism industry has been decimated by political unrest in the country since 2011. In 2015, a flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg on the Russian carrier MetroJet was destroyed by a bomb, killing all passengers. Sharm el-Sheikh had been a popular destination for Russian tourists, but many Russians have stopped going to Egypt since the bombing. In the hope of rebuilding its tourist industry, Egypt has increasingly courted tourists from China, though the country’s income from tourism remains considerably lower than it was before 2011.

Another interesting feature of this map is how many large dots there are on islands. One reason, of course, is that many islands have beautiful beaches that attract foreign tourists. But another reason is simply that flying is a good way to get from one island to another.

Many parts of Africa do not have well developed infrastructure, such as roads and rail lines. As a result, it is often easier to fly if you’re traveling long distances within a country. In many cases, however, airlines fly domestic routes in very small planes, which don’t carry enough passengers to make our map. As air travel within Africa becomes more and more common, it is likely that we would need to add more and more dots to this map.

This week, we were perhaps more generous than we should have been in handing out points. In the student and class categories (but not in the non-student category), we awarded points to guesses about total number of tourists when those guesses came on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Obviously, the vast majority of the people who fly on the 700 weekly flights between Cape Town and Johannesburg are not tourists—they’re ordinary South Africans who want to get from one major city in their country to another. But we started to think that “total number of visitors to the city” might be a plausible way of framing the answer, and “tourists” seemed like a viable synonym for visitors, and so we decided to be a bit lenient.

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