Airlines, hotels and tourism operators have been warned it is likely to take another two years for international travel to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Though official figures show the big influx of international students is continuing and the rebound in short-term arrivals is well under way, forecaster Deloitte Access Economics predicts it will not be until late 2025 that visitor numbers recover to 2019 levels.
In a report commissioned by the Australian Airports Association, Deloitte said domestic air travel would be fully recovered from the pandemic by the end of this year and would continue to grow solidly through 2024 and beyond.
It predicts domestic passenger traffic will grow by an average 2.3 per cent a year to reach more than 180 million trips by 2040, up from around 100 million trips in 2012.
But it cautions the rebound in international travel will be more drawn out.
The forecaster said borders closures and ongoing supply chains issues and capacity constraints had hampered the recovery in this sector, along with "prolonged travel hesitancy, which is just starting to show signs of recovery".
International passenger numbers in the year to June 2023 were still 43 per cent lower than in the same period in 2019 and will take until late 2025 to catch up to where they were.
And Deloitte predicts future growth will be slower than the pre-pandemic period, averaging a little less than 3 per cent a year compared with 5.6 per cent a year between 2012 and 2019.
But Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the influx of international students in September almost matched pre-pandemic levels.
Highlighting the strength of global demand for an Australian education, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show 45,090 students arrived from offshore in September, just 0.5 per cent fewer than at the same time in 2019, including 24,420 international students, just 740 shy of the number that arrived at the same time four years ago.
The number of short-term visitors arriving is also edging closer to levels reached before COVID-19 hit.
The arrivals, which included tourists, business travelers and relatives, reached 584,620 people in September. While this was around 110,000 fewer than in late 2019, it was an almost 60 per cent increase from a year earlier.
More than one in five came from New Zealand while there has been a rapid rebound in Chinese visitor numbers, reaching almost 60,000 in September after numbering just 14,630 in January.
Australian Airports Association chief executive James Goodwin said the Deloitte report showed that airports made an important contribution to the economy. employing around 11,000 workers and generating around $4.2 billion from their core operations.
But Mr Goodwin said that to "future proof" the sector, airports need to add international and domestic routes.
The biggest impediment they faced was government regulation, he said.
"It is important the federal government considers ways to unlock investment and reduce any unnecessary regulatory barriers as part of the Aviation White Paper process," Mr Goodwin said.
The government faced a strong backlash over its decision to reject an application from Qatar Airways to operate extra flights to Australia, particularly because it came amid widespread community anger over the poor service provided by Qantas.
Qantas has been publicly lashed over high rates of flight cancellations, especially on the Canberra-Sydney route, and has been accused of hoarding landing slots at Sydney Airport to block competitors.
It is also facing legal action from the consumer watchdog over claims it sold tickets to thousands of cancelled flights.