Long-haul travel faces yet another global challenge

Conflict in the Middle East is on the precipice of a dramatic escalation. If Iran and Israel become entangled in a lengthy hot war, it could have major knock-on effects for long-haul travel out of Australia. ADAM BISHOP investigates.

FAR be it for me to ever suggest the world is a stable place. Even during the golden period of the 1990s characterised by the so-called ‘Peace Dividend’, tensions and conflicts between nation states continued to bubble away, punctuated at times by some truly awful humanitarian disasters and brutal wars.

However, starting with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and more recently, the conflict between Israel and its neighbours, geopolitical instability has clearly escalated to precarious new levels of alarm.

People working in travel know all too well the vulnerability of the sector following the dark chapter of the pandemic, however I’d also wager most of us would attest to the durability and resilience of the industry as it time and again finds new ways to regroup and respond to various crises on the run.

Over the weekend, we saw Qantas and a number of international carriers forced to pivot as Iran prepared to strike Israel in a reprisal attack for an alleged assassination of a top general.

In The Flying Kangaroo’s case, the casualty was its nonstop flights from Perth to London, which for the foreseeable future will need to be rerouted to stopover in Singapore out of an abundance of caution for its passengers and crew. A very understandable decision. Testament to the uncertainly in the Middle East at the moment, however, is Qantas’s reticence to name a likely return date for the direct flights.

When asked by travelBulletin today about a possible return date of nonstop flights between Perth and London, the carrier declined to disclose any specific timeline, instead restating the “temporary” rerouting of flight paths.

The decision to cease nonstop Perth flights casts a shadow over the certainty of Qantas’ upcoming nonstop Perth to Paris services from 12 July as well.

Qantas also declined to be drawn on any doubts around the take-off date of its highly touted France route, which was unveiled to great fanfare back in October last year, with flights designed to leverage the increased demand of Aussies heading to Paris to attend the Olympic Games.

Who could blame Qantas for being cautious? With the conflict between Gaza and Israel nearing the seven-month mark, the likelihood of a protracted conflict is only more likely now that Iran has entered the fray.

Sporadic rocket fire has also been exchanged between Israel and Syria, while Iran-backed Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen have also plied themselves to new theatres of conflict, seeing the fighting sprawl outward from the shores of the Mediterranean in Gaza.

Aside from the obvious safety danger of sharing airspace occupied by missiles and bombing, there is no doubt a deepening psychological imprint on the minds of Australian travellers over time as well.

While the appetite to travel burns as brightly as it ever did, one wonders if having to travel near or through war zones will, or already has, adversely impacted the long-haul market.

Over the weekend, the Australian Government issued a region-wide warning to Australian travellers that rising conflict in the Middle East could lead to airspace closures, flight cancellations and flight diversions and other travel disruptions.

The caution was also issued for major aviation thoroughfares of the UAE and Qatar.

In the cruise space, multiple lines have also taken evasive action and amended itineraries to avoid the Red Sea and Suez Canal amid rising attacks from Houthi rebels on container vessels.

It would be understandable if that has made a few normally avid cruisers a little jumpy about jumping aboard a cruise ship in the Med, and leave some baulking at taking that long-desired trip to see the Pyramids in Egypt.

Recent figures released by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) showed that last year, Aussies were already demonstrating a growing desire for local cruise destinations.

The report released this week indicated 85% of Australians in 2023 opted for bookings within the waters of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, up from the 72.5% in 2019.

Rising geopolitical tensions are of course also intersecting with a continued cost-of-living crisis, leading many Aussies (at least right now) to book shorter trips and rein in spend.

Part of that belt-tightening has seen more people opt for closer-to-home trips, and even on the domestic travel front, many more Aussies are holidays in their own state rather than travelling farther afield to other states, according to a recent Tourism Transport Forum study.

In a climate of ongoing recovery, the last thing the outbound travel market needs are added disincentives to travel to long-haul markets, and it looks as though brands will need to deploy the agility acquired during the travel shutdown to navigate yet another global hurdle.

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