Tourism: taking the case straight to the people

The beach here goes on for miles before the essentials of sea, sand, and sky converge into a distant vanishing point. It's as smooth and unspoiled as you could want for a leisurely stroll along the water's edge. Or a sunbath.

And the place seems to have come by its name honestly. Even now, in the off-season, surfers are riding waves that seem to roll in from the other side of the world.

This is the heart of Queensland's Gold Coast, one of Australia's traditional tourist centers. It suggests one of the lower-key parts of southern California, or perhaps the Gulf coast of Florida, as they were 15 or 20 years ago.

Pigeonhole high-rises climb skyward but seem to have enough space between them that their balconies actually have views of the ocean, and not just of other balconies. INSPECT NOW, say the banners strung across the sides of buildings. Debates on the question ''Is 'Surfers' a 'Paradise Lost'?'' grace the local press.

However developed - or overdeveloped - tourism may be at this resort, though, the word at the national level is that things are really just getting started.

Up to now the Australian Tourist Commission has marketed the country only to travel agents; but now, with a budget nearly doubled, to $20 million, since last year, the ATC is taking its case directly to the American people.

The centerpiece of the revved-up promotion effort has been a $4 million advertising campaign, including its first-ever television commercial, being aired in the broadcast markets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. It features Paul Hogan, the Sydney Harbor Bridge-painter-turned-satirist who is to the Australian everyman ''ocker'' what Archie Bunker is to lovable bigots from Queens. ''You need a fair-dinkum holiday - down under,'' Hogan adjures his audience from his perch on Ayers Rock, the huge red monolith in the center of the island continent.

''The response has been nothing short of spectacular,'' says John Morse, director of market services at the ATC in Sydney. ''The commercial includes a toll-free '800' number for viewers to call to request more information; 12 seconds after the commercial first aired (in January), the phone started ringing , and it hasn't stopped yet.'' He estimates 1,100 calls per day.

''We won't really know for sure until we see the bodies in the airplane seats ,'' another official says, but Australia's visa offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles (responsible for the territory west of Kansas City) report vacation visas issued this past January and February up 87 percent, to 7,965, over the same period last year.

Qantas, the national airline, has just introduced direct service from San Francisco and Honolulu to Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of northeastern Queensland.

''The new service lets American visitors access the reef and its islands directly, instead of from Sydney or Melbourne,'' says Ian Auchinachie, manager of inbound marketing for Qantas in Sydney. And with more planes in and out of Cairns, visitors can come for just a few days, instead of having to wait a week for the next plane. ''This opens us up more for package tours,'' Mr. Auchinachie says, ''which are typically catering to Americans with just two weeks' holiday.''

Australian tourism has in the past been hampered by a number of things, including the fact, as one academic puts it, ''that Australia is not a stopover on the way to anyplace else.'' And even with budget air fares and inexpensive accommodation, a family vacation in Australia will cost Americans thousands of dollars.

But with a view to creating jobs and improving the trade balance, the Hawke government has put new emphasis on tourism, even setting up a tourism ministry, headed by John Brown, who stirred controversy with his audacity in saying there is more to Australia than koala bears and that expecting people to fly thousands of miles just to fondle the fauna is a bit much.

Mr. Morse says, ''For people on the West Coast, Australia isn't that much more expensive than Europe,'' and whips out his ticket from a recent London-Los Angeles flight to make his point.

Research has clearly shown that one of the great appeals of this country for American tourists, especially, is the friendliness and relaxed attitudes of the people. But that laid-back quality has worked against aggressive promotion of tourism and development of world-class resort facilities.

And if a hapless visitor whose bags have gone astray in Alice Springs is cheerily assured, ''Oh, she'll be right, mate,'' this may ''be interpreted as a noncaring attitude,'' Mr. Morse admits.

There are other problems as well. The $20 airport departure tax all overseas visitors must pay on leaving the country was recently lambasted as an ''iniquitous impost'' by a leading daily, which went on to decry ''penalty rates ,'' i.e., premium wages for weekend work: ''Overseas visitors will not be content just to sit in their hotel rooms . . . just because it is Sunday and many of our attractions are closed due to penalty rates.''

But tourism officials are upbeat, and not without good reason. Australia has simply captured the imagination of much of the West lately. Says Mr. Morse, ''The exposure of our pop groups, the America's Cup triumph, our ballet, our athletes, have given rise to a base of enthusiasm we can work with.''

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