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New year, new route: North Queensland gets new nonstop link to China for 2024

Reconnecting North Queensland with China for the first time in nearly four years, China Eastern Airlines will fly a seasonal service between Cairns and Shanghai for Chinese New Year celebrations in 2024. And authorities hope high demand will lead to a year-round service.

Reconnecting North Queensland with China for the first time in nearly four years, China Eastern Airlines will fly a seasonal service between Cairns and Shanghai for Chinese New Year celebrations in 2024. And authorities hope high demand will lead to a year-round service.

The move is expected to be a boon for tourism to Tropical North Queensland, with thousands of Chinese visitors expected to descend on the region to welcome the Year of the Dragon. 

But the service will also make it easier for any Queenslanders looking to swap the warmth of TNQ for the cooler climate of one of the world’s largest cities.

China Eastern will operate the service four times per week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) between 1 February and 18 February. It will utilise its A330 aircraft on the route, with 29 business and 203 economy seats.

Hainan Airlines was the last carrier to operate a non-stop service between TNQ and China, flying between Cairns and Shenzhen before exiting the market in March 2020 on account of the COVID pandemic. 

Key market connected

China Eastern's A330
China Eastern’s A330 aircraft

Cairns Airport CEO Richard Barker said the hub was thrilled to re-establish a direct service to a “key inbound tourism market” during a traditionally slower period. 

“This will be the first Chinese New Year service since the pandemic, and further illustrates how our industry continues to recover and thrive,” he remarked.

According to Cairns Airport, the flights will inject up to $3 million into the local visitor economy, with 2,320 seats planned for the route. 

“It is clear that Australia remains a destination of desire for the Chinese as international travel continues to grow following the challenges of the last few years,” said Barker, who recently travelled to China for high-level talks with the airline with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

“These key seasonal services will hopefully accelerate the return of visitors from China, which has historically led our inbound tourism market.

“We are already seeing Chinese tourists return to Tropical North Queensland after the resumption of direct services between China and Brisbane Airport.” 

Year-round service coming?

Tourism Tropical North Queensland CEO Mark Olsen said the seasonal flights could help turn the Cairns route into a year-round service.

“We have connected with the tourism trade three times in the past year, which was well received, but to be able to make the connections with the customers via direct flights will make the difference in our international recovery,” he stated.

“Tropical North Queensland was making great traction with the shift in the China market prior to the pandemic away from large groups to higher spending smaller tailor-made groups and independent travellers.

“The Federal Government’s $15 million International Tourism Recovery Program funding will ensure TTNQ undertakes the campaign activity necessary to make the flights a success.”

Filling a gap

Tourism and Events Queensland CEO Patricia O’Callaghan said TEQ had “worked hard and long to make Queensland a top destination for Chinese New Year holidays, which also fills a traditional quieter time for our industry”.

“I am absolutely delighted to see China Eastern Airlines recognising that demand and putting on these special direct services,” she said.

“The strength of Queensland’s aviation support program and our partnerships with industry have been a major factor in locking these flights in and we’ll continue to support China Eastern Airlines with marketing to keep those seats filled.”

Meanwhile, Premier Palaszczuk said the announcement was “an important acknowledgement of our commitment to boost trade and tourism between Queensland and Shanghai”, which are sister states.

“Locking in these seasonal services directly to Cairns will provide a welcome boost to the region’s visitor economy and open the door to trade opportunities,” she added.

Earlier this month, Queensland airports won gongs in seven categories at the Australian Airports Association’s (AAA) National Industry Awards.