Airlines slash international fares in bid to beat coronavirus downturn

Travel and accommodation providers around the world have been cutting prices to levels not seen since the global financial crisis in a bid to coax travellers back into the market.

The tourism industry has been hit hard by the global spread of the novel coronavirus, which has encouraged many people to cancel their holiday plans, especially as health agencies recommend social distancing and self-quarantine measures to combat the virus.

Those people who still wish or need to travel, however, may find themselves the beneficiaries of the deep discounts currently being offered across the sector.

The biggest discounts in international airfares were being seen between Australia and the USA, Haydn Long from Flight Centre Travel Group told Guardian Australia.

“We currently have return fares between Melbourne and LA with United Airlines from $772 per person. That’s cheaper than the fares that were offered at the height of the discounting during the GFC,” he said.

It represents a 30% drop on the cheapest fare for the same route 10 years ago, which was $1,142. From other capital cities around Australia to LA the fares were even cheaper – down to $634 return from Brisbane.

Some trans-Tasman routes were seeing price cuts, too, with Virgin offering limited flights from Melbourne to Auckland for $273.

There were also substantially reduced flights and accommodation packages for places like Fiji and Thailand. Discount aggregator I Know the Pilot was advertising seven nights in Phuket plus flights, upgrade and extras for $899 on Wednesday.

Many airlines are also offering deep discounts domestically, especially to areas of Queensland that rely heavily on tourists from Asia coming to see natural attractions like the Great Barrier Reef.

Thanks to the travel restrictions put on place at the Australian border, that market has slowed substantially. Tourism industry representatives in Queensland told Guardian Australia on Wednesday that while it was uncertain how long the struggle would continue, some hotels and tourism-dependent companies may find themselves facing closure due to the decline.

Jetstar had intercity domestic flights as low as $39 on Wednesday, and even Qantas, traditionally on the more up-market end, was offering domestic flights for prices closer to the standard of its competitors.

“With these deals, the airlines have tended to offer them for a short sales period,” Long said. Some discounted fares were only available for a day, or a few hours at a time.

While the plight of the coronavirus-riddled cruise ship, Diamond Princess, may have put many people off travelling the high seas for a while, the cruising industry was looking to increase capacity with new vessels arriving in Australia this year.

“Cruising is holding up reasonably well, considering the challenges the industry has faced,” Long said.

The best deals, though – at $73 per day – were with the beleaguered Princess Cruises.

The coronavirus crisis has dovetailed with the bushfire crisis locally, leaving some areas crying out for visitors – and tourism operators organising package deals to entice people back.

At Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in South Australia, for example, SA Tourism’s #BookThemOut campaign has seen companies band together to offer food, wine, accommodation and adventure packages to help the industry recover.

The fare and fee reduction is likely to be only a short-term phenomenon, however.

“Fares won’t be sustainable over the longterm,” said Long. “Once demand picks up, fares will inevitably return to normal levels. After Sars in 2003, there was a very strong rebound in Australian outbound travel.”

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