By Drazen Jorgic
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - British Airways will resume flights to Pakistan next year after a 10-year absence that followed a major hotel bombing, becoming the first Western airline to restart flights to the South Asian nation.
BA halted flights following one of the most high-profile attacks in Pakistan's history, the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in the capital, Islamabad, which took place during a period of devastating Islamist militant violence that swept the country.
But security has since improved, with militant attacks sharply down in the mainly Muslim country of 208 million people. In Islamabad, a web of road checkpoints dotted across the city for more than a decade has mostly been dismantled.
Richard Crowder, the Deputy British High Commissioner to Pakistan, told reporters in Islamabad BA's return was in large part due to "an improvement in the security environment in this country".
Pakistani officials hailed BA's move, saying it will offer confidence to other foreign investors and make the country less isolated.
"Once it gets around the world that British Airways has put its stamp of approval on Pakistan, it will put us one or two notches up as a country to do business with," said Commerce Minister Abdul Razak Dawood.
BA, which is owned by Spanish-registered IAG, is due to begin the London Heathrow-Islamabad service on June 15, with three weekly flights by the airline's newest long-haul aircraft, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
At present, only loss-making national carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flies directly from Pakistan to Britain, but its ageing fleet of planes is a frequent source of complaints by passengers.
Middle Eastern carriers Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates [EMIRA.UL] have a strong presence in Pakistan and have been eating into PIA's dwindling market share. Turkish Airlines also lays on a regular service to Pakistan.
Islamabad has been running international advertising campaigns to rejuvenate its tourism sector that was wiped out by Islamist violence that destabilised the country following the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001 and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan was formed at partition at the end of British rule in India in 1947 and more than a million people of Pakistani origin live in Britain.
Robert Williams, Head of Sales for Asia Pacific and the Middle East for British Airways, said the carrier believes the route "will be particularly popular with the British Pakistani community who want to visit, or be visited by, their relatives".
Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari, a special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, said "British Airways coming back after a decade shows you where we were and how far we have come".
"Pakistan is becoming less isolated and more connected to the world, and that's the Pakistan we want to see."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)