Take another shrimp off the barbie: Australia's popularity goes down under

It's not such a g'day in the once-golden tourism destination. Qantas, Australia's main airline, is crying uncle in this economy. It has laid off 1,700, grounded 10 jets, and put its order for new jets on hold. A few months ago, the country's official tourism department was predicting a 4% drop on visitors. The reality looks like it's going to be much worse than that. Local paper The Australian predicts the plunge in visitors could be in the double digits.

Qantas is still projecting a profit -- it's got a virtual lock on most city-to-city domestic air business -- but its profit may be as little as a fifth of what was recently being projected. For years, Qantas dominated traffic to the country, and rates were correspondingly high, making a trip to Australia an impossible dream for many. But this year, the recession has hobbled vacation budgets, taking the country's tourism down.
Fortunately, Australia has some other industries, such as mining, but there's no question it's in for a rough few years. In Australia, some 483,000 of the 21 million population are employed by tourism. Small tourism operators are dropping like flies, which are notoriously hardy in the Outback.

I adore Australia. I've been lucky enough to visit many times, and I've seen all of its territories and states at least once, often more, and it's a destination that's immensely easy for Americans to handle and understand. But there's no getting around the fact that it's not a cheap place to visit. Prices are cheap on the ground (cheaper than in America, even), but the country's distance from other populated centers of the world means everyone has to pay for an expensive long-haul flight before a single vacation snap can be taken.

Destinations like that are being creamed by the recession. In the space of a few days, we've also received dire pronouncements concerning the economies of Hawaii and the Seychelles, two other hard-to-reach places dependent on tourism.

Another factor that's bringing Qantas low is the appearance of Virgin's V Australia, which began flying from America, and providing long-absent competition, right as Americans stopped flying there in big numbers.

It may seem in poor taste to suggest carpetbagging a place when times are bad, but the fact is Australia is kind of depending on it. As you might expect, the deals going Down Under, for those with enough money to spend on a trip, are at unprecedented low levels. A few weeks ago, Qantas was selling one-way tickets for $299 each way from America's West Coast -- those seats could easily cost twice that two years ago. This week, the price went down to $265 each way. And packaged one-week vacations to Australia including both airfare and hotel are going for $999, which is what you'd pay to spend a week at a nice Caribbean resort.

Still can't afford that, but dreaming of seeing the World's Filthiest McDonald's in Adelaide? Sorry, but until this financial mess clears up, you'll have to rely on YouTube instead.

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