Why does Australia’s closest capital city to Asia offer so few international flights?

Updated November 27, 2018 09:00:05 There may be half a dozen Asian megacities on Darwin’s doorstep, but they are easier to access from airports located 4,000 kilometres south. Key points:Three flights connecting Darwin with Asia have been axed in recent yearsNT Tourism hopes a $103m tourism stimulus package will bring more flights to AsiaDarwin is…

Why does Australia’s closest capital city to Asia offer so few international flights?


Updated

November 27, 2018 09:00:05

There may be half a dozen Asian megacities on Darwin’s doorstep, but they are easier to access from airports located 4,000 kilometres south.

Key points:

  • Three flights connecting Darwin with Asia have been axed in recent years
  • NT Tourism hopes a $103m tourism stimulus package will bring more flights to Asia
  • Darwin is the only Australian place within range of narrow-body aircraft from southern China

Despite being closer to more international cities than Australian ones, the Top End capital only has direct flights to Denpasar, Singapore, Dili and Shenzhen.

Yet in many other ways, the city’s links to its northern neighbours are obvious: An observer could be forgiven for thinking that scenes of tourists sipping laksa and watching the tropical sunset at Mindil Beach in Darwin could be illustrations from an Asian travel guide.

Migrants from Asia were instrumental in establishing the city, and itscommunities from the Philippines, India, Nepal and Japan continue to grow.

Even hundreds of years ago, many historians believelocal Yolngu people travelled on boats to Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines to trade.

So current barriers to travel between Darwin and Asia make no sense to Curious Darwin questioner Tom Foley.

While the four international routes from Darwin beat the two available from his home town of Canberra, the offering pales in comparison to other northern hubs — with Cairns Airport offering direct flights to 11 international cities and Perth Airport flying directly to 18.

He asked: “Why aren’t there more international flights out of Darwin, seeing as it is the gateway to Asia?”

Curious Darwin is our story series where you ask us the questions, vote for your favourite and we investigate.You can submit your questions on any topic at all, or vote on our next investigation.

‘Literally thousands’ more planes in the sky

Connecting with Asia first hinges on demand, and recently Darwin had struggled to prove it existed locally.

Three flights from the Top End capital to Manila, Denpasar and Kuala Lumpur had been axed in recent years, andthe latest tourism data ranked the Northern Territory worst in the nation.

Many blame Darwin’s sluggish economy and shrinking population, withthe NT Government now offering to pay families up to $15,000 just to move to the region.

The construction phase of the massive Inpex Ichthys LNG plant is also wrapping up, and with it has come the demise of about 8,000 jobs.

Yet NT Airport’s aviation director Matthew Findlay was confident Asia’s soaring population and income growth would create opportunities.

He pointed out there were “literally thousands” of new planes expected to be put in the sky by Asian carriers.

“Airbus and Boeing, principally the largest two suppliers of aircraft worldwide, have thousands, literally thousands of aircraft being delivered into Asia over the next 10 years,” he said.

Chinese carrierDong Hai committed to running Shenzhen to Darwin services twice a week for three years from May this year.

While Mr Findlay said some of the flights were “not as full as we’d like them to be”, he said the service increased to three times a week during August, proving a demand existed.

Earlier this monthQantas announced direct flights twice a week from Darwin to Uluru, after research showed 68 per cent of travellers from Asia would consider flying the route.

Jetstar Asia has increased its number of direct services from Darwin to Singapore from four to five per week.

Silk Air also increased its services to Singapore from four to six per week during the dry season.

Japanese travel wholesaler JTB World Vacations has run five charter flights direct from Japan to Alice Springs and Darwin this year.

Manilla, Bali, Kuala Lumpur, India and Middle East on hit list

ABC Darwin contacted Jetstar, Qantas, Tiger Air, Air Asia, Silk Air, Malaysia Airlines, Virgin Australia and Air North to see if they were considering running additional services from Darwin to Asia in the future.

Malaysia Airlines and Air North did not respond, but the six other airlines currently had no plans to expand their Darwin offering.

NT Tourism said it maintains relationships with 30 to 40 airlines, which it hopes will lead to new carriers entering the market in the future.

Manilla is the first place NT Airport’s aviation director Mr Findlay mentions when asked where in he would next like to see a service from Darwin. This is a service that previously operated from the tropical capital before being dropped several years ago.

Bali was next on the list.

Although direct flights to the Indonesian island are still offered from Darwin by Jetstar, they reportedly have become more expensivesince Air Asia Indonesia dropped its Darwin-Bali service this year.

Mr Findlay also saw potential inreconnecting with Kuala Lumpur.

In the future, improved technologies could mean direct flights from Darwin would reach India and the Middle East, he said.

“If we were, for instance, to connect via Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Doha or even, shall I suggest, Ankara in Turkey, the range of aircraft out of those markets that could connect us to those cities and then beyond is phenomenal,” Mr Findlay said.

“Emirates and Qatar and Eithad Airways — all based in the Middle East — all connect to no less than 40 cities in Europe.

“And that would enable NT residents to far more efficiently get to the Middle East and beyond, even to the east coast of the USA.”

Tourism growth critical

Improving tourism in the Northern Territory is considered the best way to secure more flights to Asia, given there is a much greater potential for people to fly into Darwin than out of it.

NT Government’s tourism stimulus:

  • $26.57m for marketing to increase visitation
  • This includes $10.85m for cooperative marketing with partners including airlines and travel booking companies
  • Last financial year NT Tourism ran 87 of these campaigns, this financial year it will run 201
  • $2.33m for supporting business event bids
  • $20.78m for enhancing “other tourism experiences”
  • This includes $12.1m for the festival and events scene
  • $3m for tourism operators to improve their offering

It is also the only Australian destination within narrow-body aircraft range of southern China, giving it a strategic advantage over other cities.

Tourism NT said it hopes to see 30,000 visitors per year from China by 2020.

The NT Government announced a $103 million tourism stimulus package earlier this year to help reach this goal, which included almost $11 million for marketing partnerships with airlines and travel-booking companies.

Letting Asian carriers fly domestic Australian routes would be an effective way to boost the fledging tourism sector, said Greg Bicknell, CEO of the NT Chamber of Commerce.

Currentlycabotage — the right to restrict transport services within a particular area — prohibit international airlines charging customers for routes within Australia, to protect the domestic industry.

The Federal Government canvassed lifting those restrictionsin 2015, but unions and other carriers raised concerns about the repercussions.

Despite record numbers of international visitors elsewhere in the country, Tourism Research Australia found the Top End’s international visitor numbers have since dropped 7 per cent to 283,000, and spending has fallen 15 per cent to $411 million.

This may have been partly due to a hangover from the Inpex project, which Mr Bicknell said forced accommodation and flight prices skywards.

He said a proposal toupgrade Kakadu National Park could now help turn things around.

Exports, international students ‘a piece of the jigsaw’

The Darwin Airport received a $300 million investment from the Federal Government this year, which will partly go towards developing its agricultural export capacity.

Qantas also started running a seasonal freight service from Darwin to Hong Kong in July this year, with the capacity to carry 50 tonnes of fresh produce.

Pine Creek Mango Plantation farmer Wayne Quach saw this potential for NT exporters years ago, when he started exporting mangoes to Singapore via Silk Air.

But he said competition and a lack of protocols still made it difficult to establish a market.

“I can get my produce to Singapore in four hours; It’s very fresh, they love it,” he said.

“But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

The mothballing of Australia’s biggest cattle company’s Livingstone Beef abattoirearlier this year proved proximity wasn’t the only factor that determined a viable export business.

NT Airport’s Mr Findlay said investing in export facilities would be a “piece of the jigsaw” that could help secure more flights to Asia.

So would the federal and NT government’s recently announced$200 million Darwin city deal, which could see 1,100 international students — most likely from high-density Asian cities — housed in the CBD.

NT Tourism also believed plans for a newDarwin water parkandluxury hotelwould help, but Mr Findlay said those factors alone would not drive growth.

“Airlines globally, typically fly to carry passengers,” he said.

“And it just so happens that putting something under feet of passengers in the aircraft just adds to the cream on the cake, so to speak.”

Reducing ticket prices

An ongoing concern for travellers is the cost of flights, given Darwin’s reputation as one of the most expensive cities to fly to in Australia.

Mr Findlay said fares were high because of the Top End’s isolation and lower demand, particularly during the wet season.

But he hoped an ongoing Senate inquiry into air route service delivery to regional communities could result in the Government encouraging more private sector risk-taking and subsidies for carriers.

“[Government] could step in and support a commercial outcome that removes some risk initially so that the free market economics can then take it forward from there,” he said.

“Quite often governments are required to step in where markets have failed or where markets just need a little bit extra support to make the decision easier to enable a better economic outcome.”

The inquiry, due to report in mid-2019,drew many stories suggesting airlines were taking advantage of their monopolies in small towns by jacking up ticket prices.

ButQantas said earlier this year that airport fees charged in Darwin and Alice Springs made them the most expensive airports to fly into in the country.

It followed claims that airlines was refusing to pay the charges, to the tune of $1.6 million at Alice Springs.

Asked if these claims from the nation’s largest airline was likely to damage its hopes of securing others, Mr Findlay said he didn’t think so, as the fees tended to constitute less than 8 per cent of an airline’s operating costs.

“It’s never the first question I get asked when I present to an airline,” he said.

“The question they first ask is, ‘Is there enough demand to fly to your airport?’

“And that’s where airlines point their aircraft — they point their aircraft where there’s demand and where there’s support to fly.”

Who asked the question?

Canberra-based “airline enthusiast” Tom Foley noted a “distinct lack of overseas destinations” on the departure board when he passed through the Darwin Airport.

“I really thought there would be more, given how close it it to South-East Asia,” he said.

“For most people getting an international flight, they are already halfway there by the time they get to Darwin.”

But he guessed the reason was due to a lack of demand.

“The other problem is probably the emergence of long-haul aircraft,” he said.

But other aspects of Curious Darwin’s investigation surprised him: “I’m a bit taken aback that tourism is an issue,” he said.

“But the fact Darwin is in reach for China’s narrow-body aircraft is a big [advantage].

“I guess you’ve just got to work out how to lure them to Darwin first.”

While you’re here… are you feeling curious?

Topics:

travel-and-tourism,

government-and-politics,

lifestyle-and-leisure,

darwin-0800

First posted

November 27, 2018 07:48:07


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