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Tourism needs more international flights, says Sydney Airport CEO

written by Adam Thorn | December 21, 2022

Victor Pody shot this Emirates A380

Sydney Airport’s chief executive has called on international airlines to operate more flights to boost Australia’s struggling tourism sector.

Geoff Culbert said that while international travel is “ticking up”, numbers are still “lagging behind pre-COVID levels” due to a lack of capacity.

It came as the business revealed 970,000 international passengers passed through the airport in November – down nearly 30 per cent on the same month in 2019. It compared to just a 16 per cent reduction in domestic.

Australian Aviation has been reporting for months on the discrepancy between the two recoveries.

The latest set of data released by the Department of Transport for instance, shows how the number of international seats for sale – or capacity – is down 45 per cent on pre-pandemic numbers, industry-wide.


It has meant that international flights are now jam-packed with 90 per cent of seats full, in what is likely to be one of the highest occupancy rates in history.

The knock-on effect has been that tourists are failing to return to Australia in great numbers, despite months without COVID-19 restrictions.

Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show there were 370,000 “short-term overseas arrivals” in September 2022, compared to 695,000 in September 2019.

However, across the 2021-2022 financial year, just 18 per cent of those listed their reason for coming to the country as being to holiday, compared to 56 per cent who cited visiting friends or relatives.

The data appears to corroborate the observation made by Adelaide Airport’s MD, Brenton Cox, on the Australian Aviation Podcast.

“Right now, probably most of the people coming from overseas are doing so to visit friends and relatives, or for essential business,” he said. “The big free, independent travellers haven’t quite made their way here yet.”

Cox said he believed Australia’s COVID-19 response — which saw state borders open and close and a high-profile incident involving Novak Djokovic — deter casual visitors.

“I just remember looking at the scenes when Djokovic was being booted out of the Australian Open. And at that moment, you went, ‘Wow, it’s a lot of eyeballs on this.’

“And there are a lot of people who — similar to the state border risk — thought, ‘Well, if I come to this country, am I going to be trapped? Or am I going to be stuck in a detention centre?’”

By comparison, domestic aviation is now on the brink of returning to full pre-COVID levels, with the next few days likely to be the busiest in years.

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