Cairns Airport and China Eastern are expected to announce the arrival of the Shanghai-based carrier in a joint conference in the Asian financial centre today. The seasonal service will run over the peak Chinese travel season from October to March, with initial plans for three return flights per week.
Importantly for Cairns and the surrounding tourism operators of far north Queensland, the direct service to Shanghai will go a long way to filling the void in passenger arrivals since Qantas withdrew direct flights to Japan in 2009.
International arrivals to Cairns Airport slumped from a record 1.2 million in 2006 to 550,000 in 2009. Cairns now expects more than 756,000 international tourists will pass through its arrivals hall during the 2012-13 financial year, spurred by incoming Chinese tourists.
While the number of Japanese tourists visiting tropical North Queensland has had an annual decline averaging 8 per cent since 2002, arrivals from China have grown by an average 21 per cent over the same time, according to the International Visitor Survey.
The Australian Financial Review reported in May both China Eastern and Guangzhou-based rival China Southern Airlines were in talks with Cairns Airport to begin direct flights.
Should both deals come off, as is widely expected, an extra 150,000 tourists worth around $80 million to the local economy will visit the Queensland city each year.
The move by the two Chinese carriers is part of a bigger push by the country's airlines into Australia, with the focus on increased frequencies to the major gateways of Sydney and Melbourne. The influx of capacity is opening more direct links between the two countries and at the same time opening up new routes for passengers travelling on to the UK and Europe, putting more pressure on Qantas.
Earlier this month, Middle Eastern behemoth Emirates said Adelaide would become its fifth Australian destination with four weekly services beginning in November, with its Perth frequencies to increase to 19 per week from 14.
At the same time, Singapore Airlines increased its Adelaide services to 10 per week from 7, and yesterday said it would add a second daily A380 super jumbo service between Singapore and Melbourne.
Both Malaysia Airlines and low-cost carrier AirAsia X are understood to have held early stage discussions about an entry into the South Australian capital, with interest in Adelaide and Perth rising as attractive time slots at Sydney Airport become increasingly scarce.