Australian plague of bed bugs costs tourist industry millions

Travellers heading down under for a party-filled Christmas and New Year may be hoping to return with golden, sun-baked bodies - but they could just as easily end up with skin welts, itching patches and swollen bites.

The culprits are a plague of blood-sucking, bed-infesting insects threatening to hit hotels and hostels across Australia. Infestations of bed bugs, small brown mites which feed by piercing the skin, are set to cause misery in Australian tourist destinations.

Last year visitors crammed into the country to celebrate the festive season. One national chain of hostels had 5,000 infected beds, and in Queensland, even a "luxury" resort once had 36 rooms out of action.

This year the plague is expected to be even worse. A survey by Sydney City Council has found that almost eight out of every 10 backpacker hostels in the eastern suburbs boast infestations on a grand scale. "Most of the backpacker hostels either have had them in the past or do get them in phases, usually around Christmas and the New Year when everyone comes to Sydney," Dominic Sharpe, manager of Boomerang Backpackers, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Stephen Doggett, an entomologist at the Institute of Clinical Pathology and Medical Research at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, estimates that the number of bed-bug infestations treated in the city has gone up by 800 per cent in the past four years. "You should always check to see who you're sleeping with," warned Mr Doggett. "I know I always do.

"Some parts of Queensland are already getting well known for bed bugs and people are refusing to go there," he said. "In the major cities, particularly Sydney and Brisbane, it's hard to find some levels of accommodation without them."

And efforts to combat infestations are proving neither easy nor cheap. The bugs, which if necessary will move more than 100 feet away to satisfy their thirst for blood, appear largely impervious to chemical treatment. Hostels such as Boomerang have had to resort to steam cleaning sheets and replacing the mattresses.

Mr Doggett says that bed bugs are costing the tourist industry in Australia tens of millions of pounds - a figure that could rise sky-high if the problem ends up in the courts, as has already happened in the United States.

"The worst-case scenario here is the start of litigation," he said. "And it will happen. Eventually people who get bitten are likely to sue hotels."

Bed bugs were thought to have been vanquished in the Western world during the 1950s after vacuum cleaners and insecticides became ubiquitous household items. But as international travel has become more frequent, the infamous bedfellows have crept their way back into the crevices of our sheets, leaving their characteristic dark spots of excrement and sweetish odour behind them.