Travel: Paradise at the end of the world: The land Down Under is coming out on top as a destination for British holidaymakers, says Frank Barrett

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The Independent Travel
IF GOD gave you the necessary kit to build the perfect holiday destination, you would probably end up making something that looked not unlike Australia. A big country, plenty of deserted beaches, a wonderful climate, magnificent scenery, stunning wildlife, superb coral reefs and much, much more.

For the British, Australia's major drawback is that it is so far away. But then, of course, it is distance that lends enchantment - who would want to have paradise on the doorstep? Every rose should have a few thorns.

But it is only comparatively recently that we have come to see Australia as a holiday destination. Until the mid-Eighties, Australia was almost exclusively what used to be known as a VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives) place.

With the end of mass immigration (remember the pounds 10 assisted passage?) in the Sixties, by 1985 the family bonds that had closely united Britain and Australia were beginning to loosen. If Australia could not hope to depend on the VFR market, could it conceivably hope to attract holidaymakers?

In November 1986, the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) held its annual convention in the Queensland resort of Surfers Paradise. Several thousand travel industry people discovered for themselves that the flight was long, but not impossibly hard. When Australian tourist officials talked about their country becoming the next big tourist destination for the British market, it did not seem such a ridiculous idea.

The appetite for travel to America was created by the media. We lived with images of American life on television and in the cinema. We watched Miami Vice, we wanted to go to Florida. For most British people, however, the enduring image of Australia was Skippy, the bush kangaroo, hardly enough to cause a stampede for visas at Australia House.

When I attended the Abta convention in Australia, on a spare afternoon I went to see a film recommended to me by a Queensland Tourist Commission employee. I saw the future of Australian tourism. Crocodile Dundee and its star, Paul Hogan, who at the same time did a series of television commercials for the Australian Tourist Commission ('throw another prawn on the barbie'), succeeded in altering our perception of the country. Australia had previously been simply a place from which you received Christmas cards signed 'Auntie Mae and Uncle Frank'. Now we saw it as an intriguing and exclusive holiday destination.

Our awareness of the country was strengthened by the Bicentennial celebrations in 1988. And then came the success of Neighbours. By the end of the Eighties, Australia had replaced the US as the 'aspirational' holiday destination we all said we would visit if we had the money.

In 1988, a Bristol-based operator called Austravel astonished the travel trade by announcing a programme of charter flights to Australia. People bought charter flights to Malaga, even to Miami - but who would buy charter flights to Cairns or Canberra?

In the first year the company offered a programme of 5,000 seats. In four years the programme has grown to 17,500. Hardly Malaga levels, but the astonishing thing is that the number has continued to keep growing each year despite the recession.

Andrew Bathe, Austravel's managing director, says the company's main source of business is the over-55s and 18- to 30-year- olds. 'Most of our travellers probably spend some time with a friend or relative in Australia - even if it's only a day. But the number of pure holidaymakers is growing all the time,' Mr Bathe says.

People have stopped dreaming about holidays in Australia; they have started getting on planes and going there. In 1985, 156,000 British people visited Australia - by last year this total had almost doubled to 305,000. The Australian Tourist Commission expects the figure to grow by about 10 per cent a year, reaching 685,000 by the end of the century.

By then we may all be taking paradise for granted.

Charter flights: Austravel (071- 734 7755) will shortly announce its 1993/94 programme of flights to Australia and New Zealand. It expects to operate from Gatwick to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Cairns and Brisbane - as well as running fortnightly flights to New Zealand. It also seems likely that it will introduce a new charter flight from Manchester to Sydney. In the present programme, which ends next month, its fares started at pounds 549 for a Gatwick-to-Perth return; a Gatwick-to-Sydney return varies from pounds 679 to pounds 1,049 depending on season. Prices are expected to remain about the same.

Scheduled flights: The bucket shop business may not be what it was, but there is still a thriving market in cheap deals to Australia. Official British Airways fares from London to Sydney start at pounds 840 for a Superpex return for travel during May. It remains to be seen what effect BA's 20 per cent investment in Qantas will have on fares and capacity.

By phoning around you can undercut the official prices. For example, STA Travel (071-937 9962) has a return with Cathay Pacific, travelling via Hong Kong, starting at pounds 627. Bridge the World (071-911 0900) has a return with Qantas from pounds 639, including one free flight in Australia.

Packages: There are several tour operators who offer inclusive packages to Australia; however, it makes more sense to organise your own package. The travellers' guide available from the Australian Tourist Commission (see below) provides information on hotels and self-catering accommodation, air passes and car-hire deals.

Guides: Australia: a travel survival kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 12.95) is aimed more towards the backpacker but is full of useful information.

Further information: Australian Tourist Commission, Gemini House, 10-18 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA (081-780 1424).

Your dinkum guide to some bonzer Ozzie language

Dag technically the bits of matted wool and dung that hang off the rear end of a sheep. Means 'wally' in a derogatory, but affectionate, way. In NZ, more affectionate than derogatory; also adjective - 'daggy'.

Skeg slang for surfer. Also grommet, which is a junior version.

Kangaroos in the top paddock insanity, mental instability.

Don't come the raw prawn with me] 'Who are you trying to kid?'

Troppo 'gone/going troppo' (suffering the effects of tropical heat).

Useless as a screen door on a submarine speaks for itself.

Root to have sex. Pash snog.

Spunk bucket sexy guy (adj spunky).

Bloke male.

Cobber a male friend, a mate. Good blokes have lots of cobbers.

Digger an old soldier, a battler. Diggers make good cobbers.

Chick female, also called a sheila. They don't have cobbers.

Bluey anyone with red hair.

Sport universal term of address. 'Hey, sport, etc'.

Driving the porcelain bus to vomit.

Chunder to vomit (Seventies expression, now losing popularity).

Park a custard more vomiting.

Dunny lavatory.

Thunderbox as above.

Droob see dag.

Beauty (pronounced bewdy), exclamation of praise as in 'you little beauty]'

Dinkum real, as in 'fair dinkum]' meaning 'absolutely'.

Swampy person who dresses in dark, peculiar clothing.

Beaut great, terrific, etc.

Ripper as above.

Bonzer as above.

Choice NZ for 'groovy', 'beaut'.

Snaggers/snags sausages.

Tinnies cans of beer.

Esky cooler for wine, beer, etc.

Chilly bin NZ for esky.

Crook unwell as in 'crook as a chook' - sick as a chicken.

Piker one who never joins in.

Ankle-biter child. Also rug-rat.

(Photograph omitted)