A MAJOR tourism industry body has called on the federal government to inject $1 billion over the next 10 years into boosting the number of visitors from Asia.
The Tourism and Transport Forum says the burgeoning middle class in Asia - mainly in China and India - could rise from 500 million people in 2009 to 3.2 billion in 2030. But if Australia is complacent, the visitor potential from the new wealth could be lost to other countries.
The call for the massive injection of funds and for Australia to fight for its share of Asian visitors comes as income from foreign tourists is estimated to have fallen to $2.63 billion in February. This is the lowest monthly level since December 2007, according to the Bureau of Statistics.
Foreign visitors now spend about $100 million less a month on tourism services, such as flights and hotels, than they did a year ago, the bureau said.
The forum's ''Australia in the Asia Century'' paper says Australia is not alone in recognising the tourism potential. ''It is critical that we don't lose the competitive advantage of our proximity to Asia through complacency,'' the paper warns.
Forum chief executive John Lee said President Barack Obama had recently promised $US50 million to attract Asian visitors. ''Historically the US has marketed on a state-by-state basis, so this is a seismic shift to have a government-wide effort, not only in marketing, but in clearing out the delay and regulation for visas. These are the things that Australia must do and they are key recommendations in our paper.''
Mr Lee said the recommendations were vital for the government to realise its aim of doubling overnight tourism expenditure from $70 billion in 2009 to $140 billion by 2020.
Australian tourism bosses have flagged that hard times may continue for a time for regional tour operators who are feeling the pinch more than any other sector of the industry.
They say Australian tourism is in transition, moving away from traditional markets such as Europe and the US (which have their own financial woes) to a new city-centric Asian traveller.
''The regional tourism market is most under pressure,'' Mr Lee said.
''I was in Tasmania recently and it is fair to say they have been accustomed to getting many Scandinavian, German and European visitors because of their wonderful wilderness areas there. Because of dropoff from these traditional markets, they have suffered and I think anywhere more than two hours out of a city has struggled a bit.''
Tourism Australia spokesman Simon Westaway said: ''We are in transition, but the long-term sustainability of the industry is sound and the trajectory is good.
''We are seeing continuing record numbers of visitors from China, Singapore, Malaysia, India and Indonesia.
''The capital cities are doing well,'' he said. ''The parts of Australia that are hurting are the areas not directly connected to a major gateway [airport] and that are not getting a lot of low-cost carrier seats.''