Skyrocketing airfares and a significant reduction in the number of seats to and from Alice Springs has put the livability of the town and its tourism industry at risk, the region’s peak tourism authority says.
- Qantas flights between Alice Springs to Darwin are hovering at about $1,000 one way
- The fare increases as well as reduced services are affecting the outback town’s viability
- Mr Rochford is calling on businesses, residents and visitors to speak up
Tourism Central Australia (TCA) chief executive Danial Rochford said prices have been hovering at about $1,000 one way to major ports, including Darwin.
“We’re hearing that airfares to and from Alice Springs are at the highest levels that they’ve been for many years,” Mr Rochford said.
“That’s causing a great angst for our tourists, but also the locals living here in Alice Springs.”
Mr Rochford said the high cost of airfares made it difficult to attract tourists.
He has described the current tourist season as unprecedented, after several years of grim visitation rates due to the pandemic.
“We’re in a situation at the moment where I can see flights out of Brisbane to Fiji [are cheaper than to Alice Springs],” Mr. Rochford said.
“I don’t begrudge a tourist or a potential visitor thinking, ‘Well, it’s much cheaper to go to Fiji. Why go to Central Australia?’.”
Mr Rochford said that due to its remote location, the Central Australian tourism industry relied heavily on visitors being able to fly in.
“When we are seeing fares like we are now, it’s certainly making it very difficult for us,” he said.
“This is a real kick in the guts.”
Cutting services and reducing seats
Earlier this year, Qantas cut the direct flight between Alice Springs and Perth from its offerings.
The airline also reduced the size of the planes on the Alice Springs to Adelaide route from a Boeing 737 to the smaller Embraer 190.
Mr Rochford said the latter decision would result in 300 fewer seats to the region per week, with a total loss of 30,000 seats annually.
“The airlines are putting a restraint on their capacity and that’s obviously for operational reasons,” he said.
“But that’s having a net flow-on effect to the destination.
Mr Rochford said the fare price hike could be the slippery slope to an eventual axing of the route.
“We’ve certainly seen that with the [now-defunct direct] Perth service,” he said.
“Over the years [Qantas] has slowly retracted. [It has] increased the airfares, and prior to their recent decision to suspend, the airfares were upwards of $1,500 return, which essentially has stymied the the development of that route.”
Mr Rochford said it was important to look at what other states are doing to help residents cope with high flight costs.
“If you look across the fence, in Western Australia, [the state government] actually put a subsidy program in place for all its remote communities,” he said.
“So if you fly from Kununurra, Port Hedland or Broome you only pay $299 to Perth and that fare is capped. You pay no extra.
“While we have to endure up to $1,000 plus airfares.”
Resident fare a discounted option
A spokesperson for Qantas declined to respond to the call for Jetstar to replace the current Qantas service into Alice Springs, but encouraged locals to take up the discounts offered from Alice Springs to Darwin through the resident fare program.
“We know how important it is for our regional customers to have access to affordable air travel which is why we offer discounted fares for Alice Springs residents on every seat and every return flight to Darwin, even on the same day of departure,” the spokesperson said.
“While there are some realities about the cost of operating regional flights that we can’t change, our resident fare program is designed to make regional air travel more accessible for residents while ensuring it remains sustainable.”
The spokesperson disputed the TCA’s comparison of the cost of flying to Fiji versus flying to Alice Springs.
“Fiji to Brisbane is actually a shorter sector than Alice Springs to Brisbane and given Qantas doesn’t fly the Fiji-Brisbane route, I’m afraid it’s not an easy comparison,” they said.
Working with airlines
Northern Territory Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said COVID had effected the travel industry.
“We certainly work with the airlines making sure that we can attract as many airlines into not only Central Australia but also into the Top End,” she said.
“We know air services are important for people to be able to visit family interstate access services. It’s a difficult issue, particularly even those flights between Alice Springs and Darwin and that cost,” she said.
Ms Fyles said that is is a disappointing business decision for the national carrier to reduce flights in and out of the Northern Territory.
“We have been assured these changes are temporary and services will be reinstated once the current spate of illness, Australia-wide, subsides,” she said.