Strategic industry sectors


The Cairns region is synonymous with tourism. The region’s unique natural and cultural offerings see it hold a special place in the hearts of travellers worldwide. Where else can a traveller visit the world’s largest living structure (the Great Barrier Reef), hike through a world heritage listed rainforest (the Wet Tropics), have an outback experience in Cape York and an Indigenous cultural experience? The Cairns region offers a tourist package that is unrivalled globally and is the world’s best place to engage with nature. This makes it a destination with a difference.

Where the Japanese tourist market fostered the development of the region’s tourist industry in the 1990s, it will be the Chinese market that drives investment in the region over the next decade. By 2016 the Greater China market in Tropical North Queensland had grown to more than 260,000 visitors.

With the growth in visitation has come a growth in expenditure. Expenditure in the region has consistently grown over the last decade and now exceeds $3 billion annually.

The region’s long history of serving the tourism market has meant the tourism supply chain is very well established. From accommodation for all market segments, to a casino, to the reef fleet and other tourist offerings, the industry is deeply entrenched in the local economy. This affords it the strong support of local authorities, residents and businesses.

Continued demand from both domestic and western international markets, combined with significant growth in the Chinese and Asian markets will give rise to many potential investment opportunities across the tourism supply chain.

International Education

Attracted by the world class education institutions, unrivalled natural beauty of the region and the liveability of Cairns city, international students find the region offers a compelling alternative to the major international education hubs.

Figures for 2016 show there were 14,000 international students enrolled in the region across schooling, vocational education and higher education, and this is expected to grow to 18,000 over the next decade. In addition to those on student visas, Study Cairns estimates a further 15,000 international visitors participated in education activities while in the Tropical North Queensland region in 2016. This includes activities such as study tours, English language studies and marine science programs.

This growth is supported by the experience and expertise of the region’s training providers in tropical fields, including tropical medicine and economies, disaster management, and marine biology. This expertise has the potential to be further marketed to reach developing economies with similar needs, such as neighbouring Papua New Guinea and the Philippines – two markets that already make the top five markets for the Queensland Vocational Education and Training sub-sector.

Cairns’ geographic proximity to key source markets has the potential to be another significant point of differentiation for the international education sector – particularly given the expected growth in demand from source markets in the Asia Pacific
In addition to the formal education sector, the region attracts a considerable number of visitors seeking a combined tourism-education offering.

Cairns Airport is the closest entry point into Queensland for both established and emerging source markets in Asia (including from China, Japan and  Vietnam).


Agribusiness contributes $2.4 billion to the Cairns regional economy each year. The sector’s competitive advantage is built on our tropical climate and fertile soil, which is supported by specialised primary production and established supply chains.

Leading exports include raw sugar, live cattle, horticultural products (mangoes, citrus, avocadoes, potatoes, lychees, coffee, peanuts and macadamias) and fish and shellfish. Recent investment in the industry has focused on high value horticultural products such as avocados and blueberries.

In addition, there is a very sophisticated agricultural supply chain that supports the region’s producers. More recently, the agribusiness supply chain has expanded to include niche value adding processors, such as those developing retail packs of coffee, chocolate, wine, nuts and dried fruits.

There is a diverse range of wild-caught seafood species in this region including: prawns, barramundi, coral trout, Spanish mackerel, tuna and lobster. The East Coast Trawl Fishery is the largest of Queensland's commercial fisheries operating in the region targeting mostly prawns, but also harvests bugs, squid, and other species. Aquaculture species produced in the region include barramundi, jade perch, prawns and pearls.

As with tourism, the region’s agriculture industry is extremely well placed to capitalise on the significant increase in demand from emerging Asia. Recently signed free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea have opened up opportunities to export products to new markets and further grow existing markets.

Agribusiness is the future wave of economic growth, where the region’s advantages will meet global opportunity. Global opportunities will lead to agribusiness offering goods that are intended for specific global markets from the outset. To make this opportunity a reality, innovation needs to start behind the farm gate and continue across the supply chain, infrastructure, logistics, marketing and business processes


The Cairns region has a well-established and world renowned marine industry. Ports North, headquartered in Cairns, manages ports spanning 2,400km of coastline and the sector includes reef fleets, cargo vessels, cruise ships, a naval base, super yachts, marine shipyards and a fishing fleet.

Cairns has the largest marine tourism sector in Australia with The Reef Fleet Terminal as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Approximately 980 000 passengers visit the Reef from Cairns each year.

With no signs of slowing down, 2016 brought record numbers of passengers processed through the Reef Fleet Terminal with an average of 18% growth from the previous year. In January 2017, the monthly number for passengers was also a record-breaking 91,070.

Beyond marine tourism, the sector also covers recreational activity for super yachts, local charters, recreational boating and cruise liners. In 2017, domestic and international cruise ships will deliver approximately 85,000 passengers to Cairns.

Almost 1000 vessels arrived in the Port of Cairns in 2016, and another 500 across all nine ports.

The Cairns marine industry is a growth sector with well over 100 businesses operating to cater to the ever growing demand in the region. This includes provedore services and a combination of world-class marine refit, maintenance and shipbuilding companies in Cairns.

The skills and expertise required to cater to the marine services sector can also be delivered by the region’s very own Great Barrier Reef International Marine College.

Cairns is a key commercial fishing port in Australia. It is the fourth largest home port for the Commonwealth Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery and a home port for the Commonwealth Northern Prawn fishery.

Recreational fishing also plays a significant part in our community.  The Queensland Government’s introduction of a commercial Net Free Zone in Cairns on 1 November 2015 has provided the impetus for Council to work with representatives of the recreational fishing sector and other key stakeholders to develop the Cairns Recreational Fishing Strategy 2018-2022 ( PDF, 4.47 MB ).

The Cairns trading port also handles bulk carriers, coastal shipping, mother ships, and project specific cargo and container carriers. $1.15 billion of cargo made its way through Cairns over the past 12 months.

Adding to the capacity of the Port of Cairns is nearby Mourilyan Harbour, which is primarily used for sugar, molasses, live cattle and, more recently, iron ore export. It is earmarked for additional purposes in the future.

Overall, nearly 5 million tonnes of cargo was moved throughout Ports North’s nine ports in the past year bound for domestic and international markets.


Aviation is a priority sector in the region and plays an important role in the global aerospace market.

Cairns Airport features a thriving General Aviation Precinct which includes a diverse range of services including maintenance repair organisations ,engine and propeller overhaul and repair, fixed and rotary wing regular public transport, charter and tourism services, aeromedical services, police air wing , private aircraft owners, Royal Flying Doctor Service, fuel supplies, firefighting, mail delivery services, coastal surveillance, aircraft detailing ,weather services, corporate jet handling, Customs, domestic and international  freight, aircraft brokering, engineering training and cabin crew training.

Located in Cairns, Hawker Pacific Pty Ltd is a leading integrated global aviation solutions provider with more than thirty five years’ experience serving corporate, government and private customers across Asia Pacific and the Middle East. The facility is a Bombardier Dash 8 Authorised Service Facility and is one of only three such independent support facilities in the world, and the only one in the Asia-Pacific region.  Hawker Pacific is also an Embraer Commercial Authorised Service Centre (for regional airlines) for the Asia-Pacific region (Cairns and Singapore).

The Cairns facility currently provides Heavy Maintenance, Base Maintenance and Aircraft Modification support for customers both domestic and international.  Co-located at Cairns is Hawker Pacific Avionics, providing extensive avionics, bench, installation and retrofit capabilities including design engineering.  In addition, the Cairns Fixed Base Operation lounge provides VIP and ground handling services to a range of customers.  

The Cairns Aviation Skills Centre delivers world class training to meet the growing demand from local industry for engineers and apprentices to support industry growth.

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Last updated: 16 June 2020