Looking back at another massive year in travel

The impossible task of collating yet another giant year in travel is upon us, and it has fallen to Adam Bishop and Janie Medbury to pour over the events of 2023 with a proverbial fine-tooth comb to highlight the major water cooler moments. Here are just a few of the stories that had our readers' tongues wagging and our writers working up a lather of sweat.

The fallen one

Alan Joyce under intense scrutiny.

To describe him as a polarising figure would be an insult to the notion of acute tribalism. While 2023 will be remembered for many big developments in travel, perhaps none will be more noteworthy than the spectacular and sudden fall of former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce. Amid a backdrop of high airfares, dubious credit and cancellation policies, and the perception of preferential treatment from the Federal Government over capacity, the long-standing chief of Australia’s largest carrier was forced to bring his planned retirement forward to stem the heavy flow of negative PR bleeding. Only weeks earlier, the ACCC announced it would be pursuing Qantas in the Federal Court over allegations of selling tickets on cancelled flights. The legal woes were further exacerbated by a fiery appearance in the Senate over the price of air tickets, and by the time it was revealed Joyce would be getting a $10 million personal bonus at the height of public fury, the fuse was lit for a combustible end to his 15-year run at the top. While he rightfully had many detractors, it’s also tough to argue with the bottom line achieved at Qantas, including a very strong rebound to profitability following the cataclysm that was the pandemic. AB

The controversy

Catherine King was a muddle of words in 2023.

Just like the many TV pundits over the years who speculated about who shot JR (or Mr Burns), one of the major water cooler moments of the year was the debate over who shot down Qatar Airways’ chance of greater capacity in the local market? While we sit here writing this year in review, the answer to that question is still far from clear. In a climate of scarce air capacity crippling the outbound and inbound tourism sectors – as well as inflicting high air ticket prices on consumers – the somewhat flippant way in which Qatar was rejected from doubling capacity predictably raised plenty of eyebrows at the time. The finger pointing very quickly turned toward Qantas, especially in light of Alan Joyce’s uncanny knack of convincing the sitting PM of any era to stand behind his right shoulder whenever his carrier was announcing any big decision. While Joyce admitted Qantas did make a submission to the Federal Government, as is its right, to object to increased capacity for its Qatari competitor, he rejected assertions it amounted to coercion. The Federal Government was also grilled, namely Transport Minister Catherine King, who remained relatively opaque about why Qatar was rebuffed. Only in time has she sporadically revealed the rationale beyond being “in the national interest”, with breadcrumb hints over the ensuing months suggesting an unsavoury incident involving women on the tarmac in Doha in 2020 may well have been the primary factor in making the decision. If it had received the green light, Qatar Airways would have added close to a million seats to Europe via Doha. AB

The sleeping gaint awakes

Xi Jinping finally brought down his hard borders this year.

What a difference a pandemic can make. Before the dreaded “c” word cast its germ-filled shadow across the globe, China was Australia’s largest source market for tourists and a sizable outbound market for Aussies. The largest country in Asia was proving to be a major asset to local tourism operators, with the average spend of Chinese travellers in Australia unrivalled by other countries. However, a diplomatic stoush kicked off by the Morrison Government over the source of the COVID-19 pandemic saw relations between the two nations frost over, and coupled with China’s tough zero COVID policy, the well dried up suddenly for close to three very long years. During the intervening period, Tourism Australia was forced to pivot to other key markets to compensate for a lack of Chinese tourists, targeting countries like India and South Korea in particular as key nations to make up the short-fall. But this year a thawing of diplomatic relations and austere COVID policies has seen China finally wake up from its long slumber and allow visitation, as well as selected trips abroad for its own citizens. The rousing of China has seen Tourism Australia ramp up marketing efforts in key markets like Beijing and Shanghai, while several Chinese carriers have also made their way back to our shores. The first group of Chinese tourists under the recently revived Approved Destination Status scheme arrived in Australia in October, and on the touring front, major players like Wendy Wu Tours keenly relaunched its former flagship itineraries to much fanfare. AB

The rebrand

A major change in the advocacy space saw the industry body founded to represent the interests of travel agents sensationally drop the word ‘agents’ from its name altogether. Yes, the bombshell announcement that the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) would now be known as the Australian Travel Industry Association (ATIA) shocked plenty of our readers this year, judging by the feedback through our inboxes anyway. However, CEO of the rebranded body, Dean Long, insisted the move would see a more inclusive net cast to protect the interest of those working in the Australian travel sector. Following an extensive consultation process, Long explained at the time the new name would be crucial to ATIA becoming a more effective voice to government, pointing to its advocacy during COVID only achieving “some” of its key objectives. ATIA was also keen to emphasise the shift was far more than a cynical rebranding exercise, with the move signalling an expanded opportunity for more parties in travel to participate in its lobbying efforts. Chair, Tom Manwaring, noted on the day of the name change that ATIA represented a combined powerhouse of travel agents, tour operators, consolidators and wholesalers. To mark the moment, ATIA also rolled out a new individual membership option, allowing anyone working in the travel sector to align themselves with the peak industry body. Given the busy schedule of ATIA this year in Canberra and the successful relocation of the NTIAs to Melbourne, clearly the group is doing a few things right. AB

The back to the future

While in many respects the pandemic has changed the travel landscape forever, it was sobering to know trends can still go the other way too. That was the feeling for many when Flight Centre announced in August that it was resurrecting its wholesale brand Infinity Holidays. The punted wholesale division disappeared from view in 2020 after it was folded into a Product Excellence Hub during a restructuring. Infinity made it back into the wholesale stable via The Travel Junction, which was rebranded to make way for the big comeback. Infinity Holidays GM James Whiting said at the time that the industry needed a proficient, full-service wholesale offering, and when looking to rebrand and take The Travel Junction to the next level, it made sense to bring back a brand the industry knows and loves in Infinity Holidays. Flight Centre marked the moment by offering a swathe of celebratory rates of more than 50,000 products, as well as commissions of up to 15% and a hand-picked global range of hotel inventory called Atlas, which launched to the market under Infinity. CEO Graham Turner also observed upon its return to the market that Infinity was what the travel trade needed to adapt to “in a period of evolution like nothing we have seen in recent times”. AB

The cruise wave

Jeol Katz has never felt so buoyed by the numbers.

Unfairly the poster child for every wrongdoing during the pandemic, the cruise sector finally started to ride a wave of positivity again in 2023. The bright picture was laid bare in figures produced by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and the Australian Cruise Association (ACA) in October, headlined by the fact that economic output of the cruising was already well ahead of pre-COVID levels. The stunning return to the form was testament to the unflappable viability of cruise holidays among Aussies, a country with one of the highest per capita cruise rates in the world. Aussie cruises generated a record $5.63 billion for the country’s economy during the 2022-23 financial year, representing a sizable 22.1% jump on the full-year results delivered five years ago. Other notable highlights from the glowing report card included a 10% increase in related cruise employment to 18,225, accounting for $1.82 billion in wages. During the year, there was also a 32% jump in Australian port destinations visited to 62, an increase in ship visit days to 1,389, and a very impressive $1.49 billion in total passenger spend. Despite the deluge of negative publicity meted out by the mainstream media and cruises retuning to our shores much later than any other part of the world due to strict COVID policies, Aussies have clearly voted with their wallets and returned to ships in record numbers. Ahoy there cruise fans! AB

The dire warning

Darrel Wade did not pull any punches about the future of tourism.

Climate change fears reached boiling point this year, and the travel industry has certainly been feeling the heat.  One operator took a good, hard look at the ramifications for tourism in the not-too-distant future, if rapid and meaningful action isn’t taken to decarbonise travel. Travel as we know hovers on the brink of extinction” – this was the warning issued by Intrepid Travel earlier this year, in a sobering report titled A Sustainable Future for Travel: From Crisis to TransformationThe paper, which drew on the knowledge of sustainable travel experts, painted a grim picture of the path ahead – one where bucket-list destinations like the Maldives are wiped off the map by 2050 due to fast-rising sea levels, and where travel plans are frequently thrown into disarray by extreme weather conditions, from intense heat waves to raging wildfires.  These were just some of the alarming scenarios posited in the paper – all backed by facts and figures – which Intrepid argued could leave us with no way to experience our favourite holiday destinations other than through an AI headset. The second half of the report is dedicated to offering solutions to help avoid the dark scenarios outlined in the preceding pages, by driving a more regenerative approach to travel – think individual real-time carbon footprint tracking (carbon passports), hyper-fast train journeys resulting in fewer flights, rising demand for off-grid minimalist travel experiences, and government regulations ensuring tourist revenue benefits local communities. JM

Subscribe To travelBulletin