Cairns – where are we heading?


The decision by Cathay Airways to discontinue their 25 year service to Cairns sends a very clear signal to this region. Lift your game. It beggars belief that the responsible leadership of this city was caught unawares and the questionable regional aviation attraction policies, long championed by many here and in Brisbane, might have produced this result. Where was the monitoring of the previous failures and waste of public funds where airlines started then stopped services soon thereafter? Where was the relationship between a loyal and trusted airline partner and this city that had endured for 25 years and why were other carriers subsidised to compete across the route? Importantly where is the coordinated international aviation and tourism destination marketing plan for “Cairns International Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef”?   We have lost our last full service international airline providing direct worldwide access through the Hong Kong gateway for passenger and freight connectivity through the one world alliance network. Unless this situation is remedied soon we will pay a very high price. Forget the spin that the slack will be picked up anytime soon through Brisbane.

Why has it come to this? Well simply we’re being played off a break every day of the year. We lack the ticker to take up the fight to Brisbane and further south. Our tourism branding, marketing and promotional activities are increasingly being dictated to by Tourism and Events Queensland and the policy direction of TEQ is driven by a cabal of well connected corporate heavyweights from the South East and the Whitsunday Islands who see Brisbane as the only international aviation hub for the State. The Chairman of TEQ said as much this past week when he said that the “experience” messaging/marketing would be the emphasis at TEQ at the expense of “destination” messaging and that the recognised additional aviation capacity to Cairns would most likely be provided via domestic services as opposed to international. Does this government appointed board with conflicted leadership dictate policy for this region? These people are ruthless and want all of the cake. We need to match them.

So where to from here? As a community we need to stand and fight for our place in the sun. We did it before when we took ownership of the Cairns airport all those years ago and we need to do it again. TTNQ needs rebranding to get out there and aggressively market this wonderful leisure destination free of the shackles of any Brisbane influence. Despite the politically imposed appeal of the Team Queensland message, in reality it as all about Team Brisbane as history has consistently proven. This community was conned in December 2008 when the airport was shamelessly sold to the current owners North Queensland Airports for $530M to refurbish the Cairns Hospital. As a community we allowed it to happen without a whimper. The NQ Airports Group has never had any regional representation on the Board and remained philosophically unconnected to Cairns with no understanding of their regional importance. Our aviation fortunes have waxed and waned since with no clear strategic direction and understanding of where the airport is headed, and by association Cairns. An extensive $ 1B redevelopment plan to include extensive freight handling capacity was announced in late 2015 only to see the CEO at the time move on with the plan subsequently scuttled in early 2017 to be replaced by modest upgrade of the domestic airport terminal. This has been an all too familiar pattern. International airline services starting and stopping and international passenger numbers declining as the BAC stepped up the pressure on the back of the Commonwealth Games. This is now starting to sound all too familiar. The ownership and management of the airport needs to step forward and accept their share of responsibility for this “unforseen” event along with others. We need a change of direction to rediscover our mojo.

Kevin Byrne is a former Mayor of Cairns and welcomed the inaugural Cathay flight to Cairns in 1994. He is now the President and Executive Manager of Enterprise North.

19 May 2019