China-to-Darwin flights run under capacity, questions raised over deal’s value for money
International flights between the “Silicon Valley” of China, Shenzhen, and Darwin are less than half full, four months after the direct link began, new figures reveal.
- In September, more people flew from Australia to Nauru than Shenzhen
- NT Government asked to explain how much money it has spent “propping up” the deal
- Freight services could be more fruitful than tourism, academic says
The statistics report, published by the Federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, shows that in September, just 382 passengers flew inbound to Darwin on Donghai Airlines — or 44 per cent of capacity — while 237 passengers flew outbound, equating to just 27 per cent of capacity.
That month, more people flew between Australia and tiny Pacific nations like Nauru, Western Samoa and the Solomon Islands.
The flights began at the end of May, and were billed as a tourism coup for the Northern Territory.
The NT Government is hoping the flights will help it meet and exceed a target of 30,000 visitors from China per year by 2020.
The potential benefit to the Northern Territory economy was estimated at $32 million each year — if the route reached three flights per week at 80 per cent capacity.
In August, Donghai Airlines added extra flights, running 13 inbound and outbound paths, but in September those numbers had dropped back to just eight each way.
The August flights were 30 per cent full inbound and 28 per cent full outbound.
The Northern Territory Government’s last budget allocated $10 million for “cooperative marketing to support sustainable airline services”, though it’s not clear how much of that is associated with the Donghai flights.
Deputy Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro questioned how much the effort to secure Donghai flights was paying off.
“Seat volumes are 44 per cent — that speaks volumes about how this deal is not working and the Territory needs to ensure we’re getting the best value for money,” she said.
“And that means boots here on the ground in Darwin, visitors travelling through the Territory.
“Territory tourism operators are really relying on this promise that there will be more people in Darwin as a result of these flights.”
NT Tourism Minister Lauren Moss said: “This is still a new service and Donghai Airlines and the Territory Government continue to work together to increase demand.”
‘Young airline’ will take time to build capacity
Speaking on the phone from China, Darwin Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis said the figures were positive, considering how long the service had been operating.
“It is a young airline, it is the beginning of the service, it will take time to build capacity,” he said.
“It needs promotion from both sides and I’m pretty sure this will happen.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Ken Parish, a former NT Labor MLA and senior law lecturer at Charles Darwin University.
“Everybody, including the Government and the tourist industry, would be a bit disappointed with the results, but four months is still fairly early on in the piece,” he said.
“There’s outstanding questions about how much money, if any, the Northern Territory Government is pouring into it to prop it up and persuade Donghai to continue to fly here.
“Some questions about that have been raised and I think they’ve mostly been answered by saying well, it’s commercial in confidence.
“I don’t think frankly that’s a valid excuse when you’re talking about public money.”
Promise of a visitor boom has been ‘over-egged’
According to the report, there was 2.4 tonnes of freight onboard the inbound flights from Shenzhen to Darwin, and 4.9 tonnes on the outbound flights.
In August, Donghai carried 6.3 tonnes inbound and 7.5 tonnes outbound.
Mr Parish said freight possibilities were an under-sung benefit.
“Donghai has been historically mostly a freight airline, not a passenger airline, and one of the major benefits is freight links into and out of the Territory by air for time-sensitive freight,” he said.
“Perishable freight like seafood, fruit and vegetables and those sorts of things.”
Mr Parish said it freight growth could be expected to continue with new projects in the pipeline — including a barramundi farm, the Project Sea Dragon prawn farm, and international investment in the fruit and vegetable industry.
But Mr Parish said the NT Government had “over-egged the pudding” with the estimates of a visitor boom.
“We were never going to get [those] sort of numbers of Chinese tourists coming in at such short notice, I think,” he said.
“As the CBD is revitalised with the Darwin Cities Deal, with the building of a major water theme park, the Landbridge Hotel, a range of other developments … I’m hoping and expecting that in two or three or four years time, Darwin will wake up again and be an exciting place to live and visit.”