Sydney Airport offers views of the airfield at T1 International’s Marketplace.

Tourism Australia boss John O’Sullivan believes the importance of airports to the tourism industry cannot be understated, labelling them the “transport cathedrals” of their home cities and towns.

Airports are, he observes, the first and last touchpoints for international visitors and have a critical role in terms of the impression they make.

The welcome a visitor receives – combined with their experience of processes such as immigration, baggage facilitation, terminal transfers and airport cleanliness – influences their experience.

“From a Tourism Australia point of view, airports are incredibly important not just because of the supply they bring in in terms of aviation seats but from an experience point of view as well,’’ O’Sullivan says.

“They’re also a critical part of the mix because they are the very first impression that an international visitor will get when they come to Australia.

“If you think about when you step off a flight, the very first thing you experience is obviously the immigration process. And when you depart a destination, it’s a critical part of that journey.

“So the quality of the experience that airports provide is really fundamental to the impression a visitor will have of a destination.”

The key role airports play in Australia’s growing multi-billion-dollar tourism industry was a key highlight in the recent Connecting Australia report complied for the Australian Airports Association by Deloitte Access Economics.

Overall, Australian airports handled 118 million domestic passenger movements and almost 39 million international million passenger movements in 2016-17.  This was the culmination of a 14 per cent rise in total passenger movements over the past five years.

The biggest growth — 34 per cent — was in international passengers, with airports facilitating eight million international tourist trips in 2016-17 by visitors who spent $26.6 billion while they were here.

Most of the international tourist visitor nights went to New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, which between them accounted for 80 per cent of the total. Western Australia accounted for 11 per cent and South Australia 4 per cent, while the remaining 5 per cent was split between Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.

The economic value of international tourism supported by airports totalled $21.6 billion, or 1.3 per cent of the national economy. This included a $12 billion direct contribution by the aviation sector and $9.5 billion indirectly added as this contribution stimulated upstream industries.

The report estimated this translated into 218,500 jobs, equivalent to 1.8 per cent of total employment in Australia.

Domestic tourism facilitated by airports was nothing to sneeze at either. That came in at $10.6 billion in direct and indirect value added to the economy supporting 121,200 jobs.

O’Sullivan believes Federal Tourism Minister Steve Ciobo understands the importance of the aviation industry to tourism.

He notes Ciobo led a delegation to China as part of the China -Australia Year of Tourism in 2017 involving the chief executives of major airports to meet the heads of the country’s three biggest airlines and Hainan Airlines.

“He’s very aware of the importance of aviation as a driver of growth for international tourism,’’ he says.

A veteran of many overseas airports, O’Sullivan also thinks Australian airports are doing a good job of improving the experience for customers in areas such as investment in infrastructure related to retail and dining as well as working with airlines on lounges.

“I think our airports are up there with some of the best in the world from that point of view,’’ he says. “I think they have done, and continue to do, a good job.”

He also sees airports starting to capitalise on Australian brand strengths such as its food, wine and natural beauty.

“I think we’ve started to see that in places like Sydney, for example,’’ he says. “Before she departed, Kerrie (Mather) did an amazing job of bringing people like Luke Mangan, Wolfgang Puck – those types of brands — into the terminal,’’ he says.

“When you think about it, when you’ve got a few hours to kill you want to be able to go and have nice food.”

Reflecting the country’s natural beauty is a little more difficult, but Sullivan points to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Sydney’s Botany Bay and indigenous art at Cairns Airport as examples.

He also applauds the development of airport precinct hotels such as The Vibe in Canberra and new Accor properties in Brisbane as a boost to the passenger experience and notes their importance from the perspective of the government-industry Tourism 2020 plan to increase the supply of rooms.

Those with meeting and conference facilities are also important from a business perspective, he adds.

As the mix of visitors to Australia changes — China is about to eclipse New Zealand as our biggest inbound market — one area on which O’Sullivan would like to see the industry focus is foreign languages.

While acknowledging the efforts airports have made with China, he recounts a recent visit to Los Angeles and Tom Bradley International terminal, where announcements were made in English, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish.

“I think that’s the one all of us need to be working on and airports have often been the lead in providing that,’’ he says.

Payment options are another opportunity. Sullivan says airports should be looking at options such as Alipay and WeChat Pay, both popular in China, that fall outside the more traditional channels.

In terms of new markets, the tourism boss singles out India as the one to crack, with South America and the US worth watching.

“We would all love to see an increase in non-stop services from India into Australia,’’ he says, pointing to the exponential market growth from China and the fact a tourist can now fly from 17 Chinese cities to six in Australia.

“So we would love to see one of Australia’s carriers go into India on a non-stop regular basis into Mumbai or New Delhi.

“And equally we’d love to see an increase in frequency from Air India’s existing services and we’d love to see the introduction of Jet (Airways) services.”

Steve Creedy

Author

An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.