MELBOURNE/KANGAROO ISLAND • The Australian government said yesterday that it will channel A$76 million (S$70 million) to the tourism sector, which has been badly hit by long-lasting bush fires, as business owners fretted about cancellations that stretch into the months ahead.
Although recent rain has brought some relief, damage to the industry from the fires has approached A$1 billion (S$926 million) so far and may top A$4.5 billion by the end of the year, according to estimates from Australian tourism bodies.
"People have stopped coming," said Mr Tony Coppins, owner of Kangaroo Island Safari and Kangaroo Island Ocean Safari, adding that he had received cancellations for February and March.
"They think the whole island is on fire and it's not, so we really need to send that message out that the island is still accessible."
A fire earlier this month scorched more than 200,000ha on the island, located off the coast of South Australia, in blazes described as "hell on earth".
The government said the A$76 million was an initial push to help the country's A$152 billion tourism industry, which accounts for more than 3 per cent of annual economic output.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said: "International visitors are critical and especially in places like Kangaroo Island or tropical North Queensland, and these are destinations that have relied upon a large part of their visitor market being international tourists and that's why we (have) got to recover those markets as quickly as we can."
He said bookings from key international markets to Australia were down by between 30 per cent and 40 per cent. Domestic bookings across the country were down nearly 70 per cent, Australian media reported.
Rain has brought the number of fires burning across Australia's east and south coast to under 100 for the first time in weeks. At least 25 people have been killed in the fires while a billion animals are estimated to have perished.
In Melbourne, fears that smoke from the fires would disrupt the Australian Open receded. The tennis tournament starts today as the city and parts of the bush fire-ravaged state of Victoria brace themselves for heavy rain.
"Victoria is about to see its wettest two-day period in many, many months," said meteorologist Dean Narramore from the state's Bureau of Meteorology.
More than 780,000 fans attended the two-week Australian Open last year, according to figures from the office of the state's premier, providing a major influx of cash for Victoria's economy.