Regional centres, tourism operators slam the government’s half-price flights package



The federal government’s tourism support package has drawn an angry response from regions that have been left out of the $1.2 billion cut-price flights scheme, with one regional mayor calling it “alarming and short-sighted”.

The package will fund half-price airfares to 15 destinations across Australia, which will be available from the beginning of April.

Around 800,000 half-price tickets are being made available for interstate travel, targeting areas the federal government says are particularly dependent on aviation for tourism.

The announcement of the package comes ahead of the JobKeeper wage subsidy coming to an end later this month.

The government argues that program could not be kept running forever, but with more than 600,00 Australian jobs tied to the tourism industry, it was under pressure to provide more support.

Melbourne Airport plane landing.
Melbourne Airport is not included in the Commonwealth’s cheap flight scheme.(ABC News: James Hancock)

Dubbo mayor, Ben Shields, says it’s unfair that four destinations in Queensland are included in the scheme, while Victoria and New South Wales have just two between them.

“The idea that we will just continue to leave the Dubbo regional airport sitting out there losing money without many flights here, while we are throwing money at these Queensland destinations is so unfair to western NSW,” he said.

“In fact, it is quite alarming how short-sighted this proposal is.

Victoria’s Tourism Minister Martin Pakula has written to his federal counterpart Dan Tehan to call for more areas to be included in the package.

Mr Pakula says Victoria and NSW are being short-changed, while the scheme encourages people from those states to travel elsewhere for their holidays.

“The Commonwealth could say to Australians, there are 800,000 half-price flights available, they’re available to any part of the country.”

Mr Pakula said there was no reason three areas in Tasmania — Burnie, Devonport and Launceston — should be included, but only one airport in Victoria.

“I think it’s a 35-minute drive from Burnie to Devonport, and it’s an hour from Devonport to Launceston by car so it’s been no impediment to three Tasmanian airports being included.”

The Victorian Government has asked the Federal Tourism Minister to include Melbourne Airport, as well as the regional airports in Mildura, Bendigo and Albury in New South Wales in the scheme.

“It’s just not reasonable for a federal, supposedly tourism scheme, to be used in a way that is so inequitable and which forgets large parts of the tourism industry.

“Regional and metropolitan tourism recovery is too important for it to be coloured by the electoral map.”

It’s not just the southern states that have been critical of the plan, however, with Queensland’s Deputy Premier Steven Miles asking for more Queensland destinations to be added to the scheme.

Currently, the Whitsundays, Cairns, the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast are selected for the plan, but it is only open for interstate travellers.

Mr Miles said he wants Townsville and Hervey Bay added to the list, and for Queenslanders to be able to use the cheap flights to visit the locations.

“Queensland is the tourism heart of the country, so why should people in Brisbane be excluded from visiting places in their own state?” he said.

“I don’t know why they were left off the list, why the Morrison government hates Townsville, I don’t know why they hate Hervey Bay.”

Deputy PM promises to ‘revisit’ list

Transport Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack defended the scheme, while also adding that it was an “initial list”.

“Not every destination is on the list. Again, I state, it is an initial list and so we’ll revisit,” he said.

He also said the decision to subsidise flights would flow on to benefit other tourism operators.

“When those people get off the plane and go down those steps … and look at the wonderful Sunshine Coast or Avalon airport … they will go ‘how good is this?’ and they will go straight into a cafe or pub or tourist operator and buy a ticket for whatever theme park, or whatever the case might be and they will spend money,” he said.


Mr McCormack acknowledged tourism operators had done it “very, very tough” particularly in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.

“Well the Federal government’s coming to their assistance,” he said.

“Once again we are the white knight on the shining white horse and we are coming to the support and help of those tourist operators, on behalf of those cafes and hotels and accommodation places, and of course the airlines and airports.”

Late yesterday, Darwin and Adelaide were added to the scheme.

Avalon Airport is the only destination in Victoria included in the package so far, while Merimbula is the only location in NSW on the list.

“There are a range of other locations in Victoria and just over the border, so Albury, Bendigo, Mildura, and of course, Melbourne Airport which should also be eligible to receive cut-price flights,” Mr Pakula said.

The federal government says more destinations could be added to the list of destinations in the coming weeks.

Regional Victorian centres call for support

Bendigo Tourism Chair Finn Vedelsby is hopeful that central Victoria will be included in any expansion of the package.

“It’s an opportunity that’s going to be sorely missed by Bendigo as our airport has only been going from strength to strength,” he said.

“Throughout this pandemic, central Victoria certainly needs more support.

“It’s really important that every Australian go visit their backyard, and by backyard I mean visit other regions — Bendigo, go and visit Bright, go to the Hunter Valley.”

Mildura Paddle Steamers operator Ashton Kreuzer says regional Victoria is again missing out on support.

“Victoria has only got the one place, which is Avalon which is quite metro-centric, whereas Mildura itself has one of the biggest regional airports in Victoria, so why haven’t we been considered?” she said.

Ashton Kreuzer on the deck of a paddle vessel with the PV Rothbury and the Murray River visible in the background.
Mildura Paddle Steamers operator Ashton Kreuzer says the cheap flights scheme favours big destinations.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)

Federal Mallee MP Anne Webster, whose north-western Victorian electorate encompasses Mildura, says she’s disappointed the region isn’t part of the scheme, but says there are more pressing priorities.

“I understand this particular initial rollout is specifically about international destinations that have been hit really hard,” she said.

Meanwhile, flights from Auckland into Melbourne resumed on Friday after Australia’s Chief Medical Officer lifted restrictions on travellers from that part of New Zealand.

Auckland is now an orange zone under Victoria’s traffic light system, which means people can apply for a travel permit and do not have to undergo two weeks of hotel quarantine.

Travellers must get a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival.

No date has been set for the resumption of other international flights into Victoria.

Melbourne travel vouchers taken up in minutes

Mr Pakula said 40,000 travel vouchers for use in metropolitan Melbourne had been snapped up within just four minutes of being made available online.

The scheme offers a $200 reimbursement for Victorians who book at least two nights’ accommodation, and spend more than $400 in the city.

“They’ll be an enormous boon to accommodation providers not just in the CBD but throughout metropolitan Melbourne and it’s very exciting to see them snapped up so quickly,” Mr Pakula said.

“It’s been an extraordinarily popular program, and I think we’re about to see the benefits of it throughout the metropolitan parts of the city.”

Another tranche of 50,000 vouchers for use in regional Victoria will be offered from March 30, for travel after April 6.

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