Direct Perth to Shanghai flights begin on state-run China Eastern Airlines with month-long trial

UWA China expert Jie Chen said ‘what the Chinese Communist Party gave in terms of tourism deals, it could also take away.’

You reckon? Indeed money could be put on this one.

Trojan horse, or built dependency, does it really matter which? Could the outcome be the same?

MEANWHILE … Melbourne has 14 direct flights a day from China, Sydney has 12 direct flights a day from China … and we know what that has meant …

Direct Perth to Shanghai flights begin on state-run China Eastern Airlines with month-long trial

By Eliza Borrello

Updated 15 JANUARY 2020

A China Eastern plane on the tarmac.

 China Eastern have begun a trial of direct flights between Perth and Shanghai. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)

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The first 185 passengers to fly direct from Shanghai to Perth arrived at Perth Airport this morning, but a China expert is warning Beijing’s track record means their patronage could come with a catch.

Key points:

  • China Eastern Airlines will fly between Shanghai and Perth three times a week
  • Tourism WA allocated $1 million to market WA in Shanghai ahead of the trial
  • But China expert Jie Chen says there are risks in doing tourism deals with China

The flight is part of a month-long trial with state-owned China Eastern Airlines, who will fly between the cities three times a week.

WA Tourism Minister Paul Papalia said he expected the trial would provide a major boost to the local economy.

“These flights will bring in around 3,000 or so additional visitors and $15 million of spend,” he said.

But UWA China expert Jie Chen said any state making arrangements with China must be aware that what the Chinese Communist Party gave in terms of tourism deals, it could also take away.

A man sits in a chair in an office surrounded by books and papers

PHOTO: Jie Chen says the Chinese Government could use dependency for political leverage. (ABC News: Eliza Borello)

“China being a party state is quite different from let’s say India,” he said.

“We get a lot of tourists from India, a lot of students from India, you don’t have to worry whether the Indian Government itself was capable of using this as some sort of diplomatic or political weapon, but the Chinese Government can do that.

“That’s the concern, that’s the issue that makes China different from the other major sources of international students and tourism to Australia in general, to WA in particular.”

Associate Professor Chen cited the example of the tiny pacific nation of Palau, which experienced a dramatic rise and then fall in Chinese tourist numbers in 2017.

An aerial shot of a cluster of small islands in Palau.

PHOTO: A tourism deal between China and the tiny pacific nation of Palau went sour in 2017. (Reuters: Jackson Henry)

Analysts suggested Palau’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan were to blame for Beijing effectively banning Chinese people from Palau.

Associate Professor Chen said Taiwanese tourist operators had recently experienced similar market manipulation, but said WA was at a low risk of such action.

“Just on the basis of regional experiences, hypothetically you can’t rule out a scenario [in WA] where dependency can breed political, diplomatic leverage or issues which can be used as leverage by the Chinese Government,” he said.

Mr Papalia said he rejected any suggestion WA was vulnerable to fluctuations in Chinese visitor numbers.

WA Premier Mark McGowan greets Chinese tourists at Perth Airport.

PHOTO: WA Premier Mark McGowan greets Chinese tourists coming off the first direct Perth-Shanghai flight. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)

“Melbourne has 14 direct flights a day from China, Sydney has 12 direct flights a day from China,” he said.

If anyone is vulnerable to the Chinese market changing or fluctuating, it is Sydney and Melbourne, not Perth.

“It’d be great if we get bigger numbers of tourists but we’re not in any way compromised by seeking more flights from China.”

WA Government pays for media coverage

The State Government’s tourism authority, Tourism WA, has allocated $1 million to market WA in Shanghai ahead of the trial.

Unusually, the Government also paid for a journalist and camera operator from 7 News Perth to fly with Mr Papalia to Shanghai to promote the first flight to Perth.

In a statement, a WA Government spokesman confirmed the arrangement.

“In conjunction with China Eastern Airlines, Tourism WA paid for one reporter and camera operator to cover the inaugural direct flight from Shanghai to Perth,” the spokesman said

A group of four tourists stand on a jetty taking a selfie on Rottnest Island with the ocean behind them.

PHOTO: Chinese tourists are particularly interested in Rottnest Island, off the West Australian coast. (AAP: Tony McDonough)

Mr Papalia brushed off questions about the free tickets.

“It’s a normal arrangement for Tourism WA to engage with media, with journalists … they do it all the time with all channels, all media outlets,” he said.

The flight trial will end on February 17 and there are no guarantees it will be extended.

Trial ‘already a success’: Papalia

Earlier this week, the Government announced Mr Papalia, who was on the inaugural flight, was in China meeting China Eastern Airlines staff in a bid to turn the trial into an ongoing service.

“This trial’s already a success,” he said when asked how the success of the trial would be measured.

“Overall the average sale numbers is 83 per cent of seats available.

“If you remove the three return flights at the end of the trial, taking people back without bringing people over, it is actually 94 per cent sold.

A headshot of Paul Papalia in a blue suit with Mark McGowan in the background.

PHOTO: Paul Papalia has spruiked the new direct Perth-Shanghai flight as a tourism coup. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)

“That is an extraordinary outcome, acknowledged as such by the executives from China Eastern yesterday.

“We’ve just got to keep working with them.

“Airlines are risk averse, it’s difficult to get airlines, it took us a couple of years to get ANA (All Nippon Airways) and that was an incredible outcome.”

Return economy fares will be priced from $698.

It is expected tourists flying from Shanghai to Perth will want to visit the Hutt Lagoon Pink Lake and Rottnest Island.

Contact Eliza Borrello