Cheap flights to Europe with Chinese airlines: The rise of Chinese airlines in Australia

Just in case you haven't been near the Gold Coast, the Sydney Opera House or the Great Ocean Road in recent times, tourists from the People's Republic of China are flooding in.

Bringing them here for the most part is an ever-increasing number of Chinese carriers. There are now seven China based carriers serving Australian cities, China Eastern, Air China, Hainan Airlines, China Southern, Xiamen Airlines, Beijing Capital Airlines and Sichuan Airlines. Between them they offer non-stop services from at least one Australian city to more than 10 cities in China, with more on the radar.

Hainan Airlines began non-stop flights from Melbourne to Xi'An at the beginning of the month. In September, Beijing Capital Airlines launched a Melbourne-Qingdao-Shenyang service. In January, Air China will begin a non-stop service between Melbourne and Shenzhen. China Eastern Airlines will begin a non-stop service between Sydney and Kunming on November 24. The thrice-weekly flights come on top of China Eastern Airlines' Sydney-Hangzhou service that began on November 16.

Hainan Airlines arrives in Melbourne

Hainan is now the seventh Chinese carrier to offer flights to Australia, driven by the country's booming tourism market.

See also: What it's like flying China Southern business class

Driving this push from Chinese airlines into Australia's airspace is the rise and rise of Chinese tourism. According to the China Tourism Research Institute, 120 million Chinese citizens travelled abroad in 2015. That's just a squeak more than the 117 million who travelled outside China the year before although Australia is easily outpacing that increase. In the year ending June 30, 2016, Australia had 1.136 million visitors from China, a lift of 22 per cent on the previous year.

Those figures go a long way to explaining the enthusiasm among Chinese carriers for services to Australia. Traffic from Australian tourists to China is respectable, although nothing like as big. In the year ending June 30, 2016, 439,000 Australian residents visited China. That's an increase of 83 per cent on the figure for a decade earlier, but overshadowed by the almost 300 per cent increase in visitors from China to Australia over the same period.

The Chinese airlines are highly competitive. Chinese carriers regularly show up on flight search engines if you're looking for the cheapest fares to Europe. Off-peak economy saver fares from Melbourne or Sydney to Paris start at less than $1000 with Air China, and fares like that put pressure on other airlines to keep prices low.

Despite the attractive prices the Chinese carriers are not the first to spring to mind for most Australians considering a trip to Europe. One problem is the perception of a lesser safety record yet according to Germany's Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre, Hainan Airlines sits in sixth position on the JACDEC Airline Safety Ranking for 2016, well ahead of Qantas. Sichuan Airlines and China Eastern both rank above Air France, American Airlines and Korean Air.

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Another positive, the Chinese carriers open a new array of stopover options, in particular for travellers heading for Europe. Shanghai and Beijing need no introduction but some of the lesser-known Chinese cities will show you a very different side of the People's Republic.

See also: 20 things that will surprise first-timers to China

Xiamen – Xiamen Airlines

Endowed with street markets, subtropical greenery and a rich colonial heritage, this booming Fujian port is one of China's most charming cities. Just a short ferry ride from the city, Gulang Yu island was once designated a Foreign Settlement, together with Shanghai the only two on Chinese soil. Today, with its churches, consulates, villas and all the other apparatus of a colonial-era trading outpost still intact, the car-free island is a major draw with domestic tourists. Among its other attractions, Xiamen has an animated night market around Zhongshan Lu Walking Street and Xiamen University, one of China's most beautiful campuses.

Qingdao – Beijing Capital Airlines

This Yellow Sea port city is famous as the home of Tsingtao beer, a consequence of Qingdao's German heritage that lingers in an architecture that finds its roots in the concession era. Beneath the inevitable skyscrapers, knotted alleyways, street markets and a lively open-air food scene make this one of the most pleasing of China's smaller cities. The waterfront location modifies the sweltering heat of summer, and the bitter chill of the northern winter. In August, Qingdao hosts a Beer Festival subtitled the Asian Oktoberfest.

Kunming – China Eastern Airlines

Kunming is the gateway to Yunnan province, a diamond in the rough, home to many of China's ethnic minorities whose cultures are expressed in distinct styles of architecture, cuisine and costume. High points include a mountainous scenery carved into terraces for fields of barley and maize, the deep gorges of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers and the city of Lijiang, where the shops and temples of the old city border a gushing stream, like a willow-patterned plate brought to life. Hoisted high onto a plateau in the shadow of rhododendron-smothered mountains, the city of Zhongdian – rechristened Shangri-La – sits among Tibetan villages furnished with smoky temples and wildflower-sprigged alpine meadows with grazing yaks.

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to China

See also: What Chinese tourists like (and dislike) about Australia

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