Tourists find a spot in the sun

TRIED to get a plane seat in or out of Australia lately? The number of inbound passengers soared 23 per cent in December to 565,777, the highest figure ever in a single month. Brits fleeing their appalling weather led the charge, climbing 54 per cent, Indonesian passengers doubled in number and Kiwis flocked in. Asian visitors spending Chinese New Year here guaranteed a bumper January.

Total tourist figures for 2000 were up 11 per cent at 4.9 million. And remember, the "halo" effect of the Sydney Olympics has not even begun to kick in. It was four years after the Barcelona games before Spanish figures peaked. With the Australian dollar still at bargain levels, and the country clearly a hot destination, we are headed for another big year.

The NASDAQ crash and the slowing economy crimped US arrivals, which were only up 2.7 per cent in December. The fastest growing source of tourists was mainland China. In the first year since Beijing added Australia to the list of officially approved destinations for PRC holiday makers, 123,000 have come in. Perth only attracted a few thousand of these. The Chinese want to see world famous icons on their travels - our Bell Tower does not yet qualify.

If they ever embrace the wide open spaces, like many of our Japanese visitors have, that would be a different matter. The Tourism Forecasting Council, perhaps a trifle optimistically, has predicted the number of Chinese arrivals will grow at 25 per cent a year to reach 1.1 million by 2010. I hope they have mentioned this to the visa department at Immigration.

Western Australia was keeping pace with national figures at the half-way mark last year with overall tourism growth up 10.8 per cent.

The Pacific Asia Travel Association has made the radical suggestion that an expanded Perth airport could become a key regional hub and the Australian gateway for the next generation of aircraft flying to and from Europe.

Indeed, PATA said Perth would be the only possible choice, because the new 777-200 planes have a maximum range of 8,800 miles. That would enable them to reach here from London or Paris non-stop. But not Sydney or Melbourne, unless the pilots want to refuel in the Nullarbor.

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