Record flight sales have shown just how keen Australians were to get away over Easter after being locked down for much of last year in the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tourism operators across the country are revelling in Easter business that matched 2019 levels as the nation experienced its first major holiday free of closed borders and concerning virus numbers.

But industry figures warn the sector is not out of the woods just yet, with the head of the Australian Tourism and Industry Council saying an improved vaccine rollout was key to a long-term comeback.

Qantas and Virgin saw booming ticket sales in the lead up to the long weekend, while holiday-makers clogged highways out of the major cities as they headed for regional getaways.

Virgin posted its best day of domestic bookings in its 20-year history last Thursday with 71,000 travellers snapping up half-priced flights rolled out by the federal government.

By Monday the airline had sold 128,000 half-price fares – about 49 per cent of its government allocation. Over the weekend routes to the Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra were among the busiest.

“Virgin Australia is scheduled to operate 261 services today with many of those flights near full or sold-out which really demonstrates the pent-up demand we’re seeing for Australians to travel for holidays or to reunite with loved ones this Easter,” a spokesman said.

“Typically, this time of the year is one of the busiest travel periods annually and it‘s pleasing to see demand for Virgin Australia services at levels not seen in months.”

Qantas flights between capital city routes – particularly Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – were popular over the weekend, while there was strong demand for trips to Tasmania and Broome in Western Australia.

A Qantas Group spokeswoman said in a statement they had also seen more customers buy cheap tickets for later in the year.

“We are confident that the vaccine rollout will help keep borders open permanently, and buzzing airport terminals over Easter shows that Aussies are ready to travel again,” the statement said.

Queensland’s warm weather was a big drawcard, with capacity on flights to Cairns and the Sunshine Coast actually higher than pre-COVID levels this Easter.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles told media on Monday 75,000 people had jetted into Cairns over the weekend on full flights from Melbourne and Sydney.

“On the Sunshine and Gold Coast, (it was) very busy with Gold Coast airport having its busiest day for arrivals on Thursday, the Gold Coast ranks in the top searches for travel websites, the outback has been really busy as well and so, it’s wonderful that Queenslanders and southerners have supported our tourism regions,” he said.

“Now we just want to make sure we can get everyone back home safely.”

Although it was an undeniably positive weekend, Australian Tourism and Industry Council executive director Simon Westaway warned there was still “some way to go” before the sector could be confident of a return to normal.

“We’re moving back towards 2019 levels in terms if peak holiday period,” he said. “Is it a mirage? To some degree it is.”

Despite the booming numbers this weekend, Mr Westaway said many Australians remain reluctant to travel interstate because of the looming threat of border closures.

Major events are also at the mercy of the virus, and no international tourism means business could slow down once more as Australia heads into winter.

Mr Westaway said governments putting their trust in the vaccine roll out, instead of reverting to snap lock down measures, would be “make or break” for the industry’s ongoing recovery.

“We’ve had a year of this now,” he said. “Border closures should be the last port of call.”