SYDNEY (AFP) - Britain's Prince William and wife Kate charmed a welcoming crowd at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday as they began the Australian leg of a tour Down Under with baby Prince George.
The couple touched down in Sydney after a 10-day visit to New Zealand in which the royal infant George was the star attraction, and were taken by motorcade to the iconic harbourside building.
Addressing a reception inside the Opera House, Prince William praised Australia's efforts in leading the search to find missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the remote Indian Ocean. "Your contribution to the ongoing search for MH370 has earned respect in every quarter of the globe," he said.
And he spoke of the affection for the former British penal colony held by members of his family including his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II, his father Prince Charles and his late mother Diana.
"My mother's deep affection for Australia - which you were so kind to reciprocate - needs no reminder," said the second-in-line to the British throne, who first visited Australia with his parents in the 1980s.
He said the Queen had recently spoken of how Australia had changed since her first visit, with its economy and self-confidence growing. "For Catherine, Harry and me, born in the early 80s, we've never known anything else - Australia and Australians have always been for us a beacon of confidence, creativity in the arts and sporting ability," he said.
Prince William said his son George, who was again on his mother's hip as the family disembarked from their flight from New Zealand, was "now busy forging his own link with Australia".
"I suspect George's first word might be 'bilby' - only because 'koala' is harder to say," said Prince William, referring to the small rabbit-eared Australian marsupial.
Thousands of people had lined the forecourt of the Opera House to greet the couple and cheered and clapped when they arrived under blue skies, with many straining to catch a glimpse of the duchess, who was wearing a slim-line bright gold dress. "We've seen the Queen, and we came to see Diana so we had to come to see Wills and Kate," said Ms Helene Deer from Newcastle, two hours north of Sydney.
Ms Suzannah Cowley, who brought her daughters Chloe, 7, and Olivia, 4, to the Opera House to see the royals, said she had been impressed with how the couple bore themselves. "I just think they seem down to earth and I like that," she said. "They seem to be setting their own pace and putting their own stamp on the family and how they relate to everyday people.
"I think they've really reached out to everyday people," she said.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge may also have revived the monarchy in Australia, with a poll in Wednesday's Sydney Morning Herald revealing support for becoming a republic is at its lowest level in more than three decades. The Fairfax-Nielsen poll revealed that 51 per cent of the 1,400 Australians polled favour a Briton remaining the country's head of state, while 42 per cent supported a republic.
Ms Caroline Hales, who had travelled from Melbourne to see the royals with her daughter Holly, said she still harboured some republican feelings but she liked the "feel good" factor of the visit.
"I think it's romantic," she said. "They are bringing goodwill."
The couple were greeted by crowds in the tens of thousands during their ten-day tour of New Zealand, even in small regional towns such as Blenheim and Cambridge.
While in Australia they will visit the scenic Blue Mountains, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Uluru, the giant red monolith in the desert heartland of the country formerly known as Ayers Rock.