Half-price domestic flights: Governments ruined tourism and now they want you to fix it

A week or so ago Tourism Australia was imploring us via its ubiquitous "ambassadors", Hamish and Zoe (the only travel-loving Australians seemingly unperturbed by the potential for snap border lockdowns to ruin a holiday) to visit our tourist and worker-starved capitals.

Then came Dan Tehan, the neophyte tourism minister who overrode his own cashed-up holiday marketing agency with a selective $1.2 billion cheap airfares campaign designed to make political capital out of other needy and skyline-challenged points on our troubled travel map.

Instead of Brisbane he now wants you to visit Burnie; instead of Canberra he now wants you to holiday in Cairns; instead of Melbourne he now wants you to make your way to Merimbula. Forgive the Australian traveller for being a trifle confused. Holiday exactly where this year?

Tehan and co want you to discharge your patriotic duty and spend your own hard-earned finances in order to fix a tourism industry that the body politic itself has effectively stuffed up (with Tehan explicitly telling Australians to avoid "penny pinching" in a recent address to the industry).

One headline even declared that the cheap airfares-driven holidays were Prime Minister Scott Morrison's "shout" when the program is a taxpayer-funded exercise. Give me a break, as it were.

Admittedly, it's the state and territory and governments, with the exception of NSW, which are responsible for most of the damage inflicted on tourism.

Sure, we've ended up with one of the proudest COVID-19 containment records on the planet and enjoy freedoms that the rest of the still-ailing world greatly envies. But that achievement has had a substantial toll on tourism, which supports, (or used to), up to a million Australian workers.

Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Queensland premier who presides over a state that is heavily reliant on tourism, has been displaying signs of panic for weeks as JobKeeper draws to a halt with all the braking force of an A380 rapidly running out of runway.

Elsewhere, Mark McGowan, the parochial, NSW-born and newly re-elected premier of Western Australia, chillingly declared at the weekend that his draconian border closures have served the country well and that he'd order them again. There goes Tehan's cheap flights to Broome. Who would risk it?

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The most reactive of those politically-calculated snap lockdowns (I prefer to call them "shock lockdowns") and heartless border closures which saw Australians unable to reach loved ones, are beginning to seem misguided with the true cost about to be calculated.

Even with the tourism industry in crisis as it faces possibly years before the return of international tourists - including the lost 1.5 million Chinese visitors annually - the federal government has been accused of targeting marginal seats in its cheap airline seats strategy.

Combined with the faltering vaccine distribution, which risks further delaying the revival of domestic, let alone overseas tourism, our federal leaders may well fear another contagion. That is, the political blowback from the dubious, draconian edicts of premiers and chief ministers, particularly with JobKeeper ending within days.

Despite its massive contribution to the economy, tourism has too often been dismissed as fiscal frippery by federal governments and the press gallery, and has always been only one major global shock - or a Chinese trade boycott - away from having to be taken seriously. Now it's clear that the sector's mostly young, million or so workers vote. And so do their families and friends.

It's reassuring that the new tourism minister has hit the ground subsidising, though better co-ordination and timing with Tourism Australia would help avoid confused messaging about where they think we should go.

Even so, our leaders have already probably caused too much damage to consumer confidence in domestic travel for cheap airfares to be anything more than a Band-Aid over an oozing sore.

See also: Five-star hotels slash rates as cities struggle to attract visitors

See also: The only NSW destination on the half-price flights list