Tourism in Australia has been booming in recent years, but the sector is grappling with a dilemma: How to persuade the increasing numbers of visitors from Asia to venture beyond the major cities.
Last year, international tourists spent A$45 billion (S$42 billion) in Australia as the number of visitors increased by almost 400,000 to 9.3 million. The boom has been fuelled by a surge in visitors from the Asia-Pacific region, particularly from China. Last year, 1.4 million Chinese tourists visited Australia, more than from any other country. But just 8 per cent of Chinese tourists stepped outside capital cities and spent a night in a regional area.
The problem was the same with visitors from other Asian countries. Visitor numbers from Singapore, the sixth largest source of foreign tourists, increased 7 per cent last year to 464,700 and accounted for A$1.5 billion in spending, according to Tourism Australia. Yet, according to figures provided by Austrade, the federal trade promotion agency, just 13 per cent of Singaporeans spent nights in a regional area.
Similarly, only 19 per cent of Japanese, 15 per cent of Koreans, 13 per cent of Malaysians and 7 per cent of Indians spent a night outside the major cities, which include state capitals and the Gold Coast. In contrast, 29 per cent of visitors from New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and 39 per cent from Germany, stayed in regional areas.
This problem has prompted a push by the federal government to try to lure tourists to "the bush and beyond".
For most international visitors, the main reasons they do not venture beyond the major cities are time and cost. Australia is a large and sparsely populated country, and trips to more remote destinations can often involve long flights or road trips.
"The industry is working towards converting day trips into overnight stays in an effort to increase the economic benefit of tourism to regional communities and relieve pressure on transport and other infrastructure," said a recent report by Austrade.
A tourism expert, Professor Kevin Markwell, from Southern Cross University, said there was often a lack of awareness among international visitors about the attractions outside major cities.
He said the authorities should focus on marketing strategies which target the preferences of particular visitor groups. For instance, Chinese visitors are often interested in nature and outdoor sites and Singaporeans are often attracted to food and wine destinations and beaches.
"It is about raising awareness and about creating the kind of destination brand that will appeal to Singaporeans or Chinese or Indian or Thai markets," he told The Sunday Times.
"When Australia markets itself, a focus is on capital cities and the icons attached to these cities, like the Sydney Opera House. Other aspects are conveyed but they may not be understood."
Experts say that many international visitors believe they can satisfy their desire to leave the city by making day trips out of places such as Sydney and Melbourne rather than spending nights further afield.
The tourism authorities in Australia have identified a list of regions where they hope to boost visitor numbers.
These include the Margaret River wine and coastal region in Western Australia and Kangaroo Island, an island in South Australia which is popular for its wildlife, beaches and bushland.
Prof Markwell said the authorities need to ensure that regional areas have access to a wide range of accommodation and food offerings. He said they also need a skilled workforce that can cater to various nationalities.
This could include ensuring that non-English speakers, particularly from China, do not encounter language difficulties.
Australia's regional areas tend to be more economically dependent on tourism than its cities.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the government would examine ways "to get more tourists out into the regions to spend more and stay longer".
"Our major cities will always be essential gateway attractions but we also want visitors to venture out beyond our major cities and get a taste of the unique experiences and attractions on offer across regional Australia," he said in a statement.