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The level of technology is mostly on par with that of the early 1970s. Hovercraft similar to the SR.N6, Bell Aerospace Voyageur and Lebed are what is available. Other methods of transport are at the level you would expect for that era.

The primary terrain being considered are open, smooth deserts like the terrain of the Pilbara, but mixed in with large salt lakes varying in permanence from that of the Aral Sea pre-draining and Lake Eyre. Population density is somewhat higher than the Pilbara, but still quite low. If it's impossible to make it work in this kind of terrain you can ignore this part.

"Economically viable" can be flexed a little, but it still has to be plausible that companies would be set up to try and utilize hovercraft overland even if they would need some degree of government subsidization typical of that you'd see for more isolated regions like this.

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You need a valid reason for not having roads and not wanting/be able to build them, so that floating over the desert is the best option.

Some reason can be:

  • strategical: having permanent road would make movement easier, and there is something or someone you don't want to move easily, e.g. an enemy bordering state, a population you are persecuting or an important resource which you want to be sure you are the only one harvesting.
  • geographical: the desert is often flooded by storm or ravaged by strong winds, with the result that the topography changes frequently and dramatically, making a permanent road a constant bleed of money for repair/maintenance.
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You are right about where the hovercraft is best. It has to go somewhere pretty flat. It uses a lot more energy than a land vehicle or a boat. It cannot go as fast, if you include hydrofoils in the boats. It makes a lot of noise (I have been on a SR.N4, and it is one of the few modes of transport I really hated). It is at its best in boggy and uncertain land where neither boats or trucks can go in a straight line.

The military use things that do that. They often want to land people on beaches and in unexpected places. They have bankrolled a number of weird transport solutions, including helicopters, ekranoplans, amphibious vehicles, tanks that can go underwater, the Harrier jump-jet, and hovercraft. Of all these, the helicopter is really the only one that made it to the civil list.

Take a lesson from flying boats. Aeroflot used these when it was setting up flying routes in the 1920s. This was a good way of putting people down in the middle of nowhere provided there was some calm water you could land on. But you also had to get out drums of fuel, engine parts, and all the bits and pieces that people need. If a route looked like it might be profitable, within a few months they put in a landing strip, and moved the flying boats to somewhere else. If you go somewhere by hovercraft, and the route becomes popular (you find gold, or oil or something) then you will put in a road, or dig a harbour.

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