Trying the Exotic Down Under

Tourists flock to Australia's famed sites - and light up helpline phones with quirky questions

AUSTRALIA is a tourist's paradise and it knows it. Its beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, and they beckon even more seductively during the mother-of-all-winters in the northern hemisphere. The exchange rate is advantageous: 71 cents buys you a whole Aussie dollar (although the gap is shrinking, folks, even as we speak).

It's got exotic animals and sports-mad men in shorts who say charming, if puzzling, things like, ``She'll be apples, mate.'' Or, ``He's as happy as Larry.''

And if you only have a week, it is possible to skim through The Rock (Ayers), the Reef (Great Barrier), the Rainforest (Daintree), and Sydney. The Japanese are masters at it.

Australia is becoming known for its clean, safe, multicultural, and sophisticated cities as well as its natural beauty and animals.

According to the Australian Tourism Commission (ATC), Down Under attracted nearly 3 million international visitors in 1993, a record. Despite the recession, tourism is up 6.5 percent over last year from both the United States and Japan. But that's nothing compared to the massive influx from Asia: it's up a remarkable 85 percent from Korea, and 75 percent from Hong Kong.

But even with that, its market share of global tourism is only 1 percent. Australia wants more. The Australian Tourist Commission and state and local tourism authorities have launched a joint multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to boost international tourist numbers in the lead-up to the Sydney 2000 summer Olympic Games.

The recently opened ATC Helplines around the world are ringing wildly. ATC reports show that Australian Information Offices across Europe are handling more than 350 calls per day. The Aussie Helpline in the US is servicing more than 200. Similar lines in Chicago are handling between 100 and 200. And a helpline in Japan: about 200.

But judging from some of the calls that have come in, Australia still needs to work on how it is perceived. Let's listen in on some of those calls:

``Where can I go crocodile wrestling?''

(You can't in Australia.)

``Where can I go scuba diving in a cage to see great white sharks?''

(South Australia. But you need to be either an experienced diver filming a documentary, or very, very rich.)

``Can I leave my luggage at the airport while I do a one-day tour to New Zealand?''

(It's pretty impossible to tour New Zealand in a day. Just getting there from Sydney is three hours, plus a time difference.)

``I want a list of laundromats in Sydney, Brisbane, and Cairns.''

(Dream on.)

``What months is the ozone hole the worst?'

(Every month. The biggest ozone hole in the world sits smack above Australia and New Zealand.)

``When it's December in the US, what month is it in Australia?''

(December. But that's summer here, so bring your ``bathers.'')

While most of the questions are on expected topics like train trips, accommodations, diving, and golf, because of the distance and the fact that Australia is in another hemisphere, people seem to feel as if they're jumping off the edge of the planet.

``Inquirers are curious about what kind of food is available, and whether they should bring their own brand of peanut butter, etc., from home,'' says Carole Hancock, ATC's General Manager of Operations.

``They also don't realize the distances involved in Australia, and they think they can just hop up to Cairns from Sydney on a train in a few hours.''

Folks, that train trip would take three days.

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