Aviation

Birmo’s border warning prompts Qantas to suspend international flights

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

Qantas has announced the suspension of all scheduled overseas flights, following federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham’s prediction that Australia’s borders will remain closed until next year.

According to an update on the airline’s website this morning, scheduled international flights, except for flights between Australia and New Zealand, are suspended until at least the end of October 2020, “due to government restrictions”.

All Qantas scheduled flights between Australia and New Zealand are suspended until at least the end of June 2020, keeping hope alive of a trans-Tasman travel ‘bubble’ becoming a reality as early as next month.

“With Australia’s borders set to remain closed for some time, we have cancelled most international flights until late October,” a Qantas spokesperson told Travel Weekly.

“We still have some flights scheduled across the Tasman in the coming months, with the expected travel ‘bubble’ between Australia and New Zealand.

“Should travel between Australia and other countries open up and demand returns, we can add more flights back into our schedule.”

The move by Australia’s national carrier comes after the federal Minister for Tourism warned it was “likely” that the country’s international borders will stay shut into 2021.

Speaking at the National Press Club yesterday, Simon Birmingham said the decision to shut Australia’s international borders had been a big reason for the nation’s success in tackling the coronavirus, adding it would not be lifted for general travel in the near future.

“I do sadly think that in terms of open tourist-related travel in or out of Australia, that remains quite some distance off,” Birmingham told the National Press Club.

“Just because of the practicalities of the volumes that are involved and the need for us to first and foremost keep putting health first.”

When asked whether that meant the borders would not reopen until next year, he said: “I think that is more likely the case.”

Senator Birmingham’s comments come in the wake of news that Australia’s international travel ban had been quietly extended in May from 17 June to 17 September.

However, the federal government is ironing out a few exceptions to Australia’s border closure rules, namely allowing travel between Australia and New Zealand, with a proposal aiming for trans-Tasman travel to begin in September.

In addition, some international students will be let back into the country to study from July as part of “pre-approved” pilot programs. Birmingham also suggested some business travel may also be opened up, bolstering comments made earlier this week.

“I think those who might not only be international students, but be here for longer-term work purposes or longer-term business and investment purposes, logically you can extend those sort of same safeguards to them and their state,” he said.

“I hope that we can look eventually at some of those countries who have similar successes in suppressing the spread of COVID to Australia and New Zealand, and in working through that with those countries, find safe pathways to deal with essential business travel that helps to contribute to jobs across our economies.”

Credit: iStock/Lighthousebay

At the moment, domestic tourism is the only outlet for Australian travel organisations – with most of the nation’s states and territories flagging July open dates for their respective borders.

Moreover, certain travel organisations have jumped right into the soon-to-open domestic market, with Intrepid Travel yesterday launching its new range of local tours.

And given Australians spent more than $65 billion on overseas holidays in 2019, it is hoped by the government that some of that money can be spent locally.

Senator Birmingham said people who can afford to travel domestically should feel “an almost patriotic duty” to support local businesses by taking a holiday in Australia.

However, for much of the travel industry that cannot pivot toward domestic or trans-Tasman opportunities as viable offsets to the loss of the international market, the Tourism Minister’s comments come as bad news.

Moreover, they reiterate the importance of the extension of Commonwealth funding, in the form of JobKeeper payments, which countless industry sources have described as vital for the survival of Australia’s outbound tourism sector.

Last month, Bunnik Tours chief executive Dennis Bunnik told Travel Weekly the industry would remain in a “severe crisis” until international borders reopen, with tourism running the risk of incurring a brain-drain of talent.

“Having JobKeeper stop in September is not an option, especially for the tourism industry,” Bunnik told Travel Weekly. “It needs to be extended.”

The Australian Federation of Travel Agents, the Tourism & Transport Forum, the Australian Tourism Industry Council, the Transport Workers’ Union, Tourism Accommodation Australia, and the Council of Australian Tour Operators are among the associations pushing this message to government.

Furthermore, the Cruise Lines International Association’s Australasian arm issued a dire warning to the government yesterday, detailing the consequences if the cruise suspension continues beyond its current date of 17 September, and if JobKeeper isn’t extended for travel agents and others working in the industry.

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