Australian outback ready to cash in on Halley's return

Sorry, the Barrow Creek Hotel is full. The 11-room, rough-and-ready establishment insists it will take no more reservations for April, though owner Lance Pietsch says visitors are welcome to camp outside with their sleeping bags.

Barrow Creek, a folksy stop (gas station, hotel, post office, general store, and little else) on the long road north from desert-like Alice Springs to tropical Darwin in Australia's vast, empty northern territory, is set to cash in on Halley's comet.

The last time the visitor from outer space passed earth's way was in 1910. This time, the best place to see it is from the Southern Hemisphere. Australia's outback -- far from distracting city lights and easily accessible by scheduled airline service -- is being widely touted as offering the ultimate view.

In southern skies, Halley's will be seen in the morning this month and throughout the night for much of April. Its appearance is causing some of the unlikeliest places in Australia to get ready for tourism booms.

Japanese visitors -- 9,000 of them -- top the list. But 7,000 extra American tourists are coming, too, specifically for the experience. All told, around 20,000 arrivals from overseas are expected.

Robin Hirst, curator of astronomy at Melbourne's Museum of Victoria, hopes they won't be disappointed. It'll be less dazzling, experts say, than in 1910.

But cautious voices from observatories aren't dissuading foreigners. Japan Airlines has special charter flights scheduled for Sydney in early April. The New South Wales town of Bathurst will play host to a tent city for Japanese campers. Japanese astronomy students will be housed in remote farmhouses across the Australian countryside. While waiting for the comet, they'll be given an outdoor ``Aussie'' experience: horseback riding, fence-mending, and sheep round-ups.

In Alice Springs, Northern Territory, older Japanese will be abandoning their customary preferences for high-standard accommodations (now all sold out) and are slated to stay in trailer parks.

Some of their compatriots will camp in remote and eerie Wolf Creek Meteor Crater, a 2 million-year-old phenomenon that rises 100 feet above the otherwise monotonously flat landscape of Western Australia's Kimberley Region. These comet-watchers will pitch their tents surrounded by the sandstone and quartzite walls of the crater.

Travel industry officials suggest that many tourism companies and outback towns were slow off the mark. As a result, several thousand foreigners, mostly Japanese, won't come to Australia because available packages are sold out -- and they don't feel comfortable traveling independently.

``Thousands of Japanese travelers, flush with nicely-valued yen, have been unable to make the trip because the Australian tourist industry was caught unprepared,'' says David Armstrong, a tour organizer for Thomas Cook Travel.

For tourists canny enough to have made reservations in time, an alternative to land-based observation has proved popular: ships. The Royal Viking Line has four cruises starting in Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand, to points in the South Pacific from where the comet will be viewed in isolated maritime luxury.

How did Australia manage to be at the heart of a tourism boom many of its own officials didn't expect? Research by the American magazine ``Sky and Telescope'' determined that Australia would be the place to be for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Word spread to the travel industry. Promotion of special tours began.

Australians haven't been forgotten: For around $200, they can buy an evening flight on jet airliners from any of a number of major cities. The flight lands at the same point from which it took off. In the two hours in between, there's a celebration dinner, an in-flight lecture from an astronomer, distribution of a souvenir kit that includes a T-shirt and key-ring, and a view of Halley's comet from 30,000 feet.

The best time to view? According to astronomers, Halley's comet will pass closest to earth on April 11.

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