Australia gears up for an 'Australia' boom

Australia the movie opens Wednesday, and tourism promoters are taking the cue to ratchet up marketing hype for Australia the destination.

Some early reviews from this week's Sydney premiere criticized the film as too long and too clichéd. No matter. Australia's rugged Outback gets plenty of screen time, and tourism officials say that's never bad for business.

"We're most excited about the hype and marketing attention the movie is getting in pre-release," says Michelle Gysberts of Tourism Australia, which launched a $31 million promotional campaign around the movie.

Indeed, Baz Luhrmann (who also directed Moulin Rouge) has produced two lavish ads for Tourism Australia that feature the movie's Aboriginal co-star. Plus, tour operators have created vacation packages meant to convey the essence of the story, if not always the literal movie locations.

The film, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, is about a British aristocrat (Kidman) who inherits a ranch and must move a herd of cattle across Australia with a hunky drover (Jackman). It was shot in the state of Western Australia, and in and around Darwin in the Northern Territory.

These more remote areas aren't typically on the itineraries of first-time visitors, who are likely to visit Sydney or Melbourne, with a detour to the Great Barrier Reef. But tourism boosters are hoping the film will spark interest in the farther reaches of the land Down Under.

For more than a decade, the Harris Poll has ranked Australia as the No. 1 destination on Americans' wish lists — if money were no object. Now, promoters are hoping to change the perception of Australia as a once-in-a-lifetime trip, noting that the 13-hour flight time from Los Angeles to Sydney is about the same as one from the West Coast to Italy.

But in these tough economic times, the 50% rise of the U.S. dollar against the Australian dollar since July might be the most compelling lure. Glen Spencer, president of Australia-based Intrepid Travel's U.S. office, said their in-country bookings are up "considerably" over a year ago. Intrepid has crafted a 10-day Australia-inspired tour of the Outback starting at $3,490, single or double, plus airfare.

Western Australia recently hired a Los Angeles-based public relations firm to capitalize on potential interest generated by the film. And Northern Territory tourism minister Kon Vatskalis compared the movie's potential effect with Crocodile Dundee.

Similarly, Kidman's suggestion that swimming in waterfalls around Kununurra in Western Australia may have contributed to the fertility of the cast and crew (seven babies, including her 4-month-old Sunday, were conceived during the filming, she said), could spark demand — albeit niche demand.

•For a list of tour packages:800-965-6252; australia.com

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