Australia's ailing tourism industry on Thursday warned it was in crisis, with arrivals in September slumping as its soaring dollar and global economic woes kept visitors away.
There were just 432,200 international visitors to Australia in September according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released this week, compared with 790,600 cashed-up locals jetting off overseas.
It was a 9.0 percent plunge from the same period last year, with arrivals contracting in the nine months since January.
The numbers of Australians taking a foreign holiday, meanwhile, has grown 10.3 percent across the calendar year, with 5.70 million departures as people take advantage of the strong Aussie dollar, which hit a record 110.81 US cents in July.
Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson said global events like Ramadan, reducing visitors from Indonesia and Malaysia, and the Rugby World Cup luring visitors to neighbouring New Zealand, had also made it an especially tough month.
Australia's key inbound markets were also struggling, Ferguson said, with Japan working to recover from March's huge earthquake and tsunami and high levels of economic anxiety and unemployment in the United States and Europe.
The tourism industry warned it was at breaking point after a steady decline in visitors due to the dollar's prolonged run above greenback parity, compounded by natural disasters and the recent shock two-day Qantas grounding.
Resort islands were literally closing down across the Great Barrier Reef and jobs were being axed as visitor numbers dried up, turned off by the high prices, said Tourism and Transport Forum chief John Lee.
He likened tourism's crisis to that facing the nation's auto and steelmakers and said non-mining regional Australia was "at the eleventh hour, in major shock," calling for government help for tourism-dependent towns like Cairns.
"There's this general attitude or malaise in a political sense where people say 'Well, tourism's fun so we can't help them out'," Lee told AFP.
"What people don't realise is our industry employs six times the number of people employed in mining, we're the heavy lifter of employment in the country."
Lee said the industry needed a major cultural overhaul, with no sign of recovery in Europe or the US for at least 12 months, and Asian markets, especially China and India, looking to pick up the slack.
"We need to put serious marketing dollars into these growth markets to cover for the losses we're getting in the traditional markets," he said.
"It's really important if you want to stem the number of job losses in our industry."
Chinese visitors jumped 19.2 percent in the nine months to September and Lee said the Asian giant would overtake Britain as Australia's second-biggest inbound group after New Zealand in a matter of months.
Qantas is to launch an A380 superjumbo on its Hong Kong route from January, describing it as a key market, and the Australian Tourism Export Council said it was a "great investment where we need it most."
"These new services will provide additional capacity on key growth routes for Australia in the all-important Eastern markets," said ATEC chief Felicia Mariani.
Qantas has announced a major Asia-focused restructure of its international business by starting two new airlines, Jetstar Japan and a premium carrier rumoured to be headquartered in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
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