An Australia Marketplace was held in Los Angeles last month. Its mission was simple; to promote trade and tourism from the United States coming out of two years of COVID-19.
Australia has a way to go to return to its 2019 numbers, when one million U.S. and Canadian travelers visited, spending $3 billion. Currently demand is estimated at about 65% of 2019 travel.
Travel from outside Australia was shut down for almost two years, several planes from Qantas and other carriers are still parked, and Australia is dealing with a worker shortage in tourism.
However, Australia has a significant advantage in addition to the country’s beauty. Unlike certain international and US destinations, Australia really, really wants tourists to come back, and is investing in its tourism industry.
We spoke with Donald Edward Farrell, Minister for Trade and Tourism. He was frank about the issues facing the country as a destination. “My job is increasing the number of flights. We have a short supply of aircraft. There are still three or four planes [Qantas] still sitting out in the Mojave Desert.”
“We want more Americans to come back. We have a very close relationship,” he added. “But over the period of COVID people stopped traveling. So now there’s lot of unmet demand; Australian travel is something that lots of Americans would like to do.”
One of the most popular trips is what Australians call “Sydney-rock-reef.” Such journeys might start in the bustling city of Sydney. Uluru or Ayers Rock, the largest monolith in the world, is known for its mesmerizing paintings and carvings. “Reef” of course refers to exploring the Great Barrier Reef.
To get some idea about the distances involved, Sydney to Uluru is a 5½ hour flight or 30-hour drive of almost 1800 miles. Similarly, to get from Sydney to the land side of the Great Barrier Reef is 1250 miles.
We did a quick search for an economy flight to Sydney from LAX. The lowest price we could find for a roundtrip economy ticket from October 31 to November 11, round trip was $1,969. As Farrell put it, “We had a roundtable with the aviation industry—we want more seats!”
But the flights are coming. According to Chris Allison, Vice President of Tourism for the Americas, “Air lift is recovering strongly. Our data shows that air capacity from the USA will be back at 79% of 2019 levels by end of 2023. Airlines are continuing to expand to Australia. And as capacity continues to increase airfares will continue to normalize.”
On October 28, Allison said United will launch new services from San Francisco to Brisbane in addition to re-launching services from Houston to Sydney and Los Angeles to Melbourne. In December, Qantas will launch new services from Dallas to Melbourne. And for those who really like to see Oceania (or spend quality time on a plane), Qantas will launch New York to Sydney services via Auckland next June.
Qantas is also promising the arrival of Project Sunrise, non-stop flights from New York and London to Melbourne and Sydney, by 2025. A fleet of twelve Airbus A350-1000 will make the 19-hour ‘hop,’ with just 238 seats providing plenty of room to stretch. (Also, plenty of room for extra jet fuel.)
There are other challenges for Australian tourism to reach out to Americans. Several years ago, Qantas ran a promotion where the airline would pay for a US passport for passengers who purchased airline tickets. The long-departed deal highlighted a reality; as of 2021 just 37% of American adults say they have a valid and unexpired U.S. passport. But as Farrell put it, “Even at 40% that’s a lot of Americans with passports.”
Even better news for Australia is that two-thirds of Americans (64%) with household incomes above $100,000 have a valid US passport. For many, Australia is a bucket list destination. And GenZ backpackers with more money than time are also good candidates for Australian travel, as 58% of college grads have passports.
Farrell was more focused on hospitality staffing, a familiar issue around the world. “We are hoping to address the labor shortage; we have issues of staff shortages.” Farrell, who started working in the hospitality industry in Australia’s Northern Territories in the 1970’s, added, “Long term we want to train young Australians to work in the tourism industry.”
Australia was closed to Americans during the pandemic. Another significant group, Chinese travelers, have yet to return. But the hospitality industry focused on internal travel, much as the U.S. did. While there remains a worker shortage, many new hotels and restaurant launched throughout Australia.
But after the layoffs and furloughs that afflicted the worldwide hospitality industry during COVID, “We have to convince people to come back,” Farrell said. “We need to train more Australians; we thought backpackers and overseas students would help.”
We asked about the travel industry’s reputation for hard work and relatively low pay. Farrell said that in Australia the pay is higher than US. The issue was more, “the unreliability of work, furloughs, and layoffs. Every time there was a lockdown—you lost your job. People wanted to do something more reliable.”
But Australia sees tourism as part of the solution, with significant career possibilities. To get there, there is a focus on investing in skills training and in allowing in more immigrants with needed skills.
“We think we’ll have our hospitality workers back by October,” said Farrell. “We encourage Americans to come over. For young Americans you can get a work visa—my daughter has a work visa in NY.”
In Australia, at least, he says, “Travel and tourism is an aspirational industry.”