Travelling in Australia has become a pipedream of the rich
THERE was much excitement in our household this week when its youngest member blew through the door and announced that she and a girlfriend had just booked flights for their first visit to Europe.
"How much?" I asked. She replied that she was flying from Brisbane to London and back for a little more than $1600.
At about the same time as she was buying her ticket, a Senate inquiry was finding that airfares to ports in regional Australia were among the highest in the world and recommending that airlines and airports should be forced to open their books to see if they were profiteering.
If I wanted to fly to Alice Springs from Brisbane today and return the next day it would cost around $2400. Like to experience the magic of sunset at Uluru? You won't get much change out of $2000 for the airfare and expect to pay top dollar for food, accommodation and beverages when you get there.
Broome is another pleasant autumnal-winter destination, but at around $2000 return, it's cheaper to fly to Europe.
For $2700 per person, I can buy a twin-share ocean view cabin on a 12 day cruise through the Mediterranean with a highly-rated cruise line. If I want to cruise the magnificent Kimberley coast between Darwin and Broome it will cost upwards of $10,000 per person.
Right now tourism is booming, and the emerging middle classes from China and the subcontinent are rightly hailed as being possessed of enormous potential for the Australian market. But let's not forget the locals.
Overseas tourists are lovely, but there are millions of Australians out there who'd love to travel, but take one look at the cost and reach for their passports instead.
When it comes to airline travel away from the main trunk routes, the blame game kicks in with the airlines citing the airports inflate landing charges, and the airports claiming the airlines charge whatever they like in the absence of any regulatory oversight in a market where there is limited competition.
In its defence, Qantas has said that 14 of the 15 most expensive airports it flies to in Australia are located within Queensland and Western Australia, and that the per seat cost of regional operations was 125 per cent higher than for international flights.
Virgin told the Senate inquiry that some charges imposed by regional airports were prohibitively high and had forced it to abandon or reduce flights in some regional markets due to what it called "poor commercial performance".
The bad news is that there is no good news because proposed Commonwealth changes to aviation security - which would increase screening procedures at regional airports - would only increase the cost of handling passengers and further raise airfares.
The inquiry said that while it had received evidence which suggested that regional fares were unreasonably priced this was difficult to establish because airlines had resisted requests for information. You can't help but wonder why.
The Senate report also found the high cost of regional flying had "a direct and detrimental effect on the lived experience of residents of these areas".
Between them, the airports and airlines are strangling regional tourism. Government regulation can be counter-productive but in this case, it's overdue.