All that glitters is not gold

Australia is a top seller this summer and the Gold Coast is proving as popular as ever, but travel agents and tour operators looking to secure repeat business or longer durations should encourage clients to travel beyond Surfers Paradise

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By  Gemma Hornett Published  August 2, 2006

|~|Oz-Large.gif|~|Most first-time visitors to Australia head straight to Sydney where they are dazzled by the natural beauty of the harbour, but the GCC market is unique in that its first port of call tends to be Queensland’s Gold Coast.|~|If there is one destination in the world that never fails to impress the millions of visitors it attracts each year, it’s Australia. The country boasts natural and cultural diversity and importantly, is a safe and welcoming place to visit. “It offers something for everyone in terms of interests and activities. With its harmonious blend of nature, culture and lifestyle, it is a distinguished and different destination for the Arab traveller,” explains Andrew Oldfield, distribution development manager, Tourism Australia (TA). “We are friendly and pleased to welcome visitors from all over the globe and I think that has a lot to do with our popularity as a destination.” Australia has witnessed an influx of visitors from the Middle East in recent years. “Our arrivals figures from the GCC were up 20% in 2005 compared to 2004, and we expect a higher number this year,” says Oldfield. International visitor arrivals are expected to grow at an average annual rate of 4.8%, from 4.8 million in 2002, to 8.1 million in 2012, and it is anticipated that visitor numbers from the Middle East will mirror this growth, he adds. The value of inbound tourism will grow to AUD $32.1 billion (US $24.1 billion) by 2014, and if Australian Bureau of Statistics figures are anything to go by, Middle East travellers will contribute significantly to this figure due to their high spend per capita and per visit. Bahraini arrivals top the spend-per-visit table at AUD $7378 ($5527), followed by the Omanis at AUD $4530 ($3394). However, the scales tip in terms of average stay; Omanis stay for 40.8 days on average, followed by the Bahrainis who stay for 37.05 days. In terms of visitor arrivals from the GCC, the UAE is the outright winner. In 2005, Australia welcomed 22,444 visitors from the country, followed by 6005 from Saudi Arabia. Kanoo Holidays, which boasts an extensive holiday shop network in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, concurs with these findings, claiming Australia is one of its top two selling destinations this summer, the other being Malaysia. The operator launched a 60-page brochure dedicated to Australia and New Zealand for 2006-2007 and as a result, sales have improved 50% year-on-year according to Zaeem Gama, sales and marketing manager GCC. “The relaxation of visa requirements and the good exchange rate has also helped,” he says. “On the Gold Coast there is a very strong Arab population there these days and so Arab nationals feel confident travelling there.” More than 80% of Kanoo Holidays clients opt for the Gold Coast and the remainder head to either Sydney or Melbourne, however a few repeat customers have recently booked to go to Tasmania, the large island south of Melbourne, for the first time, says Zaeem. Gulf Air Holidays claims Australia is its fifth best-selling destination, occupying 16 pages or 18% of the 2006 brochure. “[Sales to] Australia remained static in 2004 and 2005, but 2006 has certainly seen a welcome upturn in activity due to our commitment in terms of brochure space and keen pricing coupled with above and below the line activity, including some joint planning with Tourism Australia,” explains Jon Barnett, manager destination & leisure marketing, Gulf Air Holidays. Emirates Holidays has witnessed a 20% hike in bookings to Australia over the last three years, driven by demand for the Gold Coast and Sydney and the introduction of new itineraries, says Davinder Kaur, destination development manager, Asia & Australasia. “A major change in the product content was introduced [to our brochure] last year, with the inclusion of the Great Ocean Road self-drive, the Australian Outback tour and the Australia & New Zealand Explorer,” she says. “This year the South West Coast and Margaret River self-drive was introduced. The brochure now offers a more comprehensive range of tours covering the main tourist regions.”||**||Flights of fancy|~||~||~|Although Australia’s many attributes make the destination an easy-sell, Emirates Airlines has been instrumental in raising the country’s profile in the Middle East and driving visitor numbers from this region. The airline started operating flights to Australia in 1996 and now boasts 49 per week out of Dubai. Chief executive Tim Clark has made no secret of the fact that by 2014, the carrier plans to offer four flights daily, to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, if the Australian Government grants it the air rights to do so. Other regional carriers are also keen to get a piece of Aussie action as they rapidly expand their long-haul portfolio. Both Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways have expressed interest in flying to Australia. Their purchase of Airbus A380 aircraft is likely to facilitate this. Despite Emirates’ success, Australia’s flag carrier, Qantas is yet to venture into the Middle East. “If Qantas were to consider flying to the Middle East in its own right, it would need to look at it in the same way the Middle Eastern carriers do – as a hub for consolidation for onward destinations such as the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe,” explains Stephen Thompson, regional general manager, UK, Ireland, Europe, Middle East and Africa. Current restraints to achieving this include gaining onward access rights and its possession of a limited number of aircraft capable of flying non-stop services from Australia to the Middle East, he adds. Qantas currently has codeshare agreements with Gulf Air through Singapore and when Royal Jordanian joins the oneworld alliance in 2007, more network and connection opportunities will be available.||**||Gold Coast crazy|~|Koala.gif|~||~|The Gold Coast, located in the southern most part of the state of Queensland, is a friendly, safe and relaxed holiday destination boasting 70km of beaches and a sub-tropical climate. During the winter, average daytime temperatures hover at around 23°C. The main tourist areas are Surfers Paradise, Broadbeach to the north and Main Beach to the South. Arab nationals usually opt to stay near the main drag, Surfers Paradise where shopping malls and restaurants are in abundance. “The Gold Coast is a family destination with theme parks, plenty of accommodation to suit their needs, halal food, good shopping, nightlife and most importantly, friendly Aussies,” says Paul Buggy, regional director for Korea, India, Middle East and South Africa, Tourism Queensland. “It’s also our low season and there are no crowds at the theme parks.” These include Dreamworld, Movie World, Sea World, Wet and Wild, Paradise Country and the newest addition, Australian Outback Spectacular, a family dinner show featuring stockmen, as well as cattle dogs and horses. “Most theme parks and Harbour Town [shopping mall] provide prayer rooms,” explains Buggy. “There are also bus transfers to the Mosque and halal food is readily available.” Agents should also recommend lesser-known attractions such as glow-worm tours, catch-a-crab tours and should remind clients that June to September is an ideal time to visit because it’s whale-watching season. Accommodation-wise, at the top-end of the scale, the opulent 205-room Palazzo Versace, which offers large hotel rooms, suites, and luxury private villas, is popular with the GCC market, says Buggy. “The Sheraton Mirage and Marriott Conrad Jupiters are also popular, but two- and three-bedroom apartments are in demand because of the self-catering aspect,” he adds. It is fortunate therefore, that a new 80-storey luxury apartment tower entitled Q1 has opened its doors, which comprises 527 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, all of which are decked out with modern furnishings. The top two floors house an observation desk and coffee shop boasting 360° views of the Gold Coast which are proving a popular tourist attraction, while other features include a spa, two swimming pools, a natural sandy beach, cinema, conference facilities, restaurants, shops and a fitness centre. ||**||More sunshine on the horizon|~||~||~|Although the Gold Coast is a favourite with the Arab market, Tourism Queensland is keen to promote other coastal areas of the state. They include the Sunshine Coast, which is a two-hour drive north and offers less commercialised beaches, a national park and some of Australia’s best boutique shopping, and Cairns in tropical North Queensland, which Buggy reminds agents is “the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef”. Spanning 2300km along the Queensland coast and home to 400 varieties of coral and 1500 species of tropical fish, the reef offers some of the best snorkelling and diving opportunities in the world. Travellers unwilling to take a dip can simply view the marine life from the comfort of a yacht or catamaran. On dry land there are animal and theme parks for kids, as well as a scenic train ride from Cairns to Kuranda village. But despite these unique selling points, very few Arab travellers have visited Cairns to date says Ed Brea, GM of the Shangri-La Hotel, Cairns. “We had a couple of high end visits in June and we are hoping Emirates’ flights will spur further growth,” he says. The property is already geared up to cater to Arab guests’ requirements; it offers halal food, large rooms, recently renovated suites and the exclusive Horizon Club. Further down the coast, Hayman, the exclusive resort occupying Hayman Island is witnessing a steady increase in visitor numbers from the GCC region each year, says international sales director, Rhonda Stewart. “We have received quite a few Princes staying on their honeymoon,” she says. “The Middle East market often books our penthouses.” The resort comprises 244 guest rooms and suites, 11 fully butlered penthouses and a fully bultered villa on the beach for exclusive stays. Guests’ individual requirements are well catered to and activities on offer include private boat charters, fishing, diving, snorkelling, golf, tennis, squash and helicopter and seaplane rides. Facilities include a spa, shopping arcade and several restaurants offering Australian, French, Oriental and Mediterranean cuisine.||**||Selling Sydney|~|Sydney-Opera-House.gif|~||~|Most first-time visitors to Australia head straight to Sydney where the world famous Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge are typically the first ports of call. Both boast an impressive backdrop; Sydney Harbour, where ferries transport tourists and commuters from the city to the North Shore, jet boats take thrillseekers on fast-paced harbour tours, and luxury yachts cruise the aqua marine waters in search of a place to dock on one of the many picturesque harbour beaches. Sightseeing opportunities in Sydney and its suburbs are endless and the highlights include Taronga Zoo, the AMP Tower, the Botanical Gardens and the coastal beaches, particularly Bondi and Manly, however, these attractions do not necessarily appeal to Arab nationals, explains Oldfield. “The Middle East is the only market in the world that needs to be sold Sydney,” he says. “It’s very unique in this respect.” The biggest draw cards are the shopping and the restaurants, he adds. Agents should recommend the recently opened Westfield Bondi Junction, a shopping mall that boasts international and Australian designer names, or Oxford Street, dubbed by locals as “the style mile”, where boutiques selling clothing, homewares, gifts and books are open seven days a week. Most international hotel brands can be found in Sydney, some of which, including the Shangri-La, Park Hyatt and Four Seasons offer rooms boasting stunning harbour views. The Shangri-La comprises 563 rooms, including a presidential suite, offers halal food at preferred meal times, and has Arabic-speaking staff. VIPs who have stayed at the hotel include the Prince of Saudi Arabia, HRH Prince Mohammed Ben Fahad. At the nearby Four Seasons Sydney, around 2% of guests originate from the Middle East. Arabic-speaking staff, halal food, Arabic newspapers and TV channels, a wide variety of suites and interconnecting rooms, and the provision of prayer mats and kiblats are the property’s key selling points, as well as its close proximity to the harbour.||**||Little Europe beckons|~|Hayman-Island.gif|~|Hayman in the Whitsundays offers an idyllic setting for honeymoon couples and is proving increasingly popular with Arab guests.|~|Giving Sydney a run for its money is Melbourne in the South East state of Victoria. The city is arguably less picturesque than Sydney, but what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in retail appeal and impressive gastronomy, while the atmosphere is decidedly European. Many of the city’s residents are of Greek, Italian and Lebanese origin and this is reflected in the range of reasonably priced, but top quality eating establishments on offer. “There are more than 80 types of cuisine in Melbourne and more than 400 halal restaurants,” explains Ian McDougall, international marketing manager, Tourism Victoria. “Visitors from the Middle East love hanging out in coffee shops Melbourne is very multi-cultural. The city is home to at least 30 mosques and three Islamic schools. Our Middle East guests feel at home.” According to TA figures, about 44% of all GCC visitors to Australia include a trip to Victoria, although McDougall believes 35% is a more realistic number. “Melbourne and Victoria are a must-see, but we never push mono Melbourne. Australia is so big and so we encourage visitors to do six nights in Victoria, three nights in Sydney, and the remainder of the time on the Gold Coast,” he says. The six nights in Victoria allows for three days exploring the city, where key attractions are the trams, cafes, restaurants, observation deck, shopping, Yarra River cruises, and the Crown Entertainment Complex, offering shopping, restaurants and kids activities. “The other three days can be used to explore regional Victoria, which is accessible and has plenty to offer families,” says McDougall. Key attractions within three hours travel time of Melbourne city centre, include the penguin parade on Philip Island, the historic Sovereign Hill theme park in Ballarat, where kids can pan for real gold, and Mount Buller, where skiing and snowboarding are offered during the height of Australian winter (July to September), when most GCC families visit. Melbourne offers good quality accommodation and most GCC visitors opt for hotels and apartments in the CBD area. Recognised brands such as Hyatt and Sofitel are popular, as well as the Crown Towers in the Crown Entertainment Complex.||**||Tips to score Down Under deals|~||~||~|Although bookings to Australia are strong this summer, the challenge going forward is for Tourism Australia, travel agents and outbound tour operators to ensure customers visit locations other than the Gold Coast; repeat clients are the most obvious target in this respect. “We should encourage them to have a spirit of adventure while visiting Australia,” says Oldfield. “We welcome an increasing number of Gulf visitors each year; they should be keen to visit new and different places.” ||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|Getting there: Cathay Pacific: from Dubai to Hong Kong, 13 weekly. From Hong Kong to Australia, 54 weekly. Emirates: from Dubai, 49 flights per week: double dailies to Sydney and Melbourne and from September 1, Perth, and daily to Brisbane. Gulf Air: from Bahrain to Sydney, daily. Malaysian Airlines: from Dubai, five weekly (via Kuala Lumpur). Qantas: offers several flights per day from Bangkok and Singapore and other Asian capitals to Australia’s main cities. Singapore Airlines: from Dubai, daily (via Singapore) to Australia’s main cities, and three flights per week from Jeddah. Thai Airways: from Dubai, daily via Bangkok; from Kuwait, three per week via Dubai; from Muscat, three weekly via Karachi. From Bangkok: double daily to Sydney, three times weekly to Brisbane, Melbourne, and six times weekly to Perth. Visa requirements: citizens of Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman or Qatar can apply online at www.immi.gov.au or through the VFS office in their respective city. The Australian Government recently simplified the application process for these nationalities in that they no longer need to post their passport to the Australian Consulate in Dubai to have a label placed inside. Citizens of Saudi Arabia and Yemen must apply in person at the visa application counters in Aramex (Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Sanaa). Applications take two to three weeks to process. European passport holders can apply online for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). To check eligibility, visit www.eta.immi.gov.au. Other nationalities can apply for an eVisa online. To check eligibility, visit www.imi.gov.au/allforms/676_passports.htm. Agent training: Tourism Australia recently rolled out its five-stage online training programme for agents called Aussie Enthusiast (www.enthusiast.com) in the GCC. Once agents have completed all five levels of the programme they are Aussie Enthusiast certified and can go on to train to be an Aussie Specialist. In addition, each year, TA invites a group of agents and tour operators from the Middle East to Yinala, a four-day workshop and training session in Sydney, which is followed up by fam trips to other destinations in Australia. Currencies: one Australian dollar (AUD $) = US 0.75; AED 2.77; BHD 0.28; EGP 4.34; IRR 6929; JOD 0.53; KWD 0.22; LBP 1140; OMR 0.29; QAR 2.75; SAR 2.83; TRY 1.19. Currencies calculated at time of press. Samples packages: Emirates Holidays: prices for five nights in Sydney at a three-star hotel, including breakfast, economy airfares, transfers, room tax and service charges start at AED 5526($1504) per person. Prices for a five-night package to the Gold Coast based on the same criteria, start at AED 4578 ($1246). Gulf Air Holidays: the best-selling package this year is the twin-centre Sydney and Gold Coast combo. Prices for a 17-night package based on accommodation in four-star properties and return flights, start at BHD 755 ($1997) per person and include free Superpark tickets. Hayman Island: three-night packages start from US $2073 per couple based on Palm Superior accommodation. Extra nights cost ($528). Kanoo Holidays: a six-night package spending two nights in four-star accommodation in Kuala Lumpur and four nights in three-star accommodation in Melbourne, start at AED 4370 ($1190) per person including economy flights from Dubai with Malaysian Airlines, but excluding taxes. Key selling points: 4 Food: diverse, good quality and value-for-money. Halal and authentic Arabic food widely available. 4 Shopping: Melbourne and the Gold Coast are hot spots. Things to buy include fashion items, surfwear, indigenous products such as black opals and Aboriginal arts and crafts. 4 Weather: June to September is the coolest period of the year, which appeals to Arab nationals. 4 Wildlife: kids will love koalas, kangaroos and other native animals. 4 Children’s activities: theme parks, wildlife parks, water sports and skiing.||**||

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