Attractive Australia

Singapore travellers are making the most of the favourable exchange rate for the Aussie dollar

Last month, Ms Audrey Tan, 48, an executive assistant at a car repair shop, took her first trip to Australia in close to 20 years. Her seven-day, five-night vacation in Melbourne was largely motivated by the favourable exchange rate.

"I take home $1,600 a month. It was too expensive for me before, but with the currencies on a par with each other, I felt it was okay to go now," she says.

The Australian dollar has been weakening against the Singapore dollar for some time and, last month, dropped to $0.978 against the Singapore dollar, its lowest point in seven years.

Singaporean travellers are making the most of it. A record number - close to 400,000 - arrived Down Under last year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This was up from 372,000 in 2014, placing Singapore in Australia's five largest inbound travel markets - behind the United States, Britain, China and New Zealand.

Australia has always been a popular holiday destination for Singaporeans, but it has not always been cheap. Its cities routinely top most expensive cities' lists and a Deutsche Bank report titled Mapping The World's Prices 2015 named Australia the most expensive country in the world last year.

However, as its dollar hovers around parity with the Singapore dollar, it is more affordable now than it has been in years.

Ms Tan says her biggest daily expenses were on food and Australian products and souvenirs such as facial creams, serums and nougat.

"Overall, Melbourne was quite affordable. I was surprised. I felt like I could buy more and food was not as expensive as the last time I was there."

Singaporeans are also lured by the country's trendy restaurants and hotels, the increased number of flights to more destinations and promotions by its tourism board.

Mr James Lohan, founder and executive chairman of luxury and boutique hotel guide Mr & Mrs Smith, notes that Australia has been on the tip of the industry's tongue this year, winning tourism awards and accolades for chic new hotels.

"Australia is having a countrywide moment. It was featured in the January US edition of Conde Nast Traveller as the destination of 2016 and Monocle magazine published a national special on the country this month," he says.

"And there are definitely some hot properties there, such as the eye-popping Halcyon House in Cabarita beach and the cool converted Old Clare hotel in Sydney. So Australia is clearly one place to watch."

The travel buff is planning his own trip to Australia next month. "For a few years, it has been an expensive place to travel to - on top of the cost of the long-haul flights to get there - but the falling dollar means you get more bang for your buck, so there's an even bigger reason to make this the year to go."

Ms Jane Chang, head of marketing communications for Chan Brothers Travel , says the company has seen a 10 to 25 per cent year-on-year growth in demand for travel to Australia since 2013. She attributes this to competitive pricing and - thanks to the favourable exchange rate - savings on dining, shopping and entertainment, which are the bulk of travellers' expenses.

The agency has also increased its offerings of group tours, free-and- independent travel and self-drive convoys, and expanded its repertoire of destinations in Australia, including tours to less mainstream locations such as tropical Cairns and ski holidays in Mount Buller, Victoria, to cater to new and repeat travellers.

Australia retains its appeal as Singapore's closest Western destination, notes Ms Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications at Dynasty Travel, which forecasts a 20 to 30 per cent incremental increase in tour and package sales to Australia.

"Regional tourism boards are doing more to promote Australian destinations and cuisine, and festivals such as Vivid Sydney, which will cover the city in lights during the May-June period, increase the city's appeal. Singaporeans also have more spending power there now," she says.

Travel websites are seeing growing interest in Australia too. Singapore-based searches for Australian destinations went up 49 per cent last year from 2014 on booking website Melbourne and Brisbane saw the biggest increase: a 70 per cent spike in searches compared with the year before, followed by Perth, which had a 66 per cent jump in searches.

Not only are more Singaporeans visiting Australia, but they are also spending more.

Mr Michael Newcombe, regional general manager of Tourism Australia for South, South-east Asia and the Gulf countries, says: "Last year also saw a year-on-year increase of 20 per cent in visitor expenditure, ranking Singapore Australia's fifth most valuable tourism market. Together with growth in aviation capacity, we are confident Singapore will remain a strong market."

Australia's national carrier Qantas, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and its regional arm SilkAir have announced plans to enhance their links between the two countries to meet demand.

In May last year, SilkAir expanded its Singapore-Darwin route with a link to Cairns in Queensland. The thrice-weekly flights operate in a circular route among the three cities. After several months of operations and steady demand, SilkAir will de-link the route and offer direct Singapore-Cairns and Singapore- Darwin flights from May this year.

As the flight frequency between Singapore and the two cities will not change - the thrice-weekly flights to Cairns and four to five flights a week to Darwin remain - it is a substantial increase in capacity on these routes, says a SilkAir spokesman.

A Qantas spokesman says demand for Singapore services has also seen a strong increase, especially last year when the Singapore and Australian dollars reached parity.

The airline, which now operates up to 46 flights between Singapore and Australia a week, will increase its Airbus A330 flights between Singapore and Melbourne - from seven to 10 flights a week - from next month.

And just over a year after the launch of the Perth-Singapore route, Qantas - which is currently offering discounted fares to Australia from $459 till Tuesday - will double the route's capacity from five to 10 flights a week starting from Aug 19.

The airline is also running promotional fares in partnership with Tourism Australia till the end of the month. Starting from $498 for a return flight to Perth, the sale also includes flights to Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and the airline's newest destination, Canberra.

SIA will be the first to operate regularly scheduled international flights to and from Canberra when the new service, called the Capital Express, starts on Sept 20. There will be four flights a week.

With the addition of the Singapore-Canberra flights and also the increase of the Brisbane service from 21 to 24 flights a week in May, SIA will operate more than 120 scheduled flights a week to Australia, up from 112 a year ago.

Singapore hospitality brands are also riding on Oz's popularity with Singaporean travellers. Last year, the award-winning Como Hotels & Resorts and restaurateur and hotelier Loh Lik Peng opened their first Australian properties - Como The Treasury in Perth and Mr Loh's The Old Clare in Sydney.

While Mr Loh had not been actively searching for a project Down Under, when the opportunity to open a hotel in Sydney arose, it was "too cool" to pass up, he says. After all, the city is a key lifestyle hub, where the food, culture and nightlife are on a par with some of the world's greatest cities.

He adds: "Australia also has the benefit of being relatively close to Singapore, with all of the great things you look for when you go on holiday: great beaches, great hotels, great food. All of these make it an ideal destination with something for everyone - young children, young adults and families. Plus, it's the cheapest it has been in years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Attractive Australia'. Print Edition | Subscribe