THE theatres of war are proving irresistible to thousands of Australians who each year travel to battlefields such as Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Kokoda Track.
The trekking season is just starting on the track, the site of bloody battles with the Japanese in World War II. At least 3000 trekkers are expected to take on the steep ridges and fast-flowing rivers of the track between April and October, up from just 365 in 2002.
They are motivated by a desire to experience a taste of the conditions the Diggers put up with, says the chief executive of the Kokoda Track Authority, James Enage.
"They are almost all Australians and they come because of the historical significance and physical challenge."
Numbers for the Western Front and Gallipoli are harder to pinpoint because Anzac tourists trickle in independently and in tour groups all year. But the Anzac Day dawn service at Gallipoli attracts thousands each year. Numbers peaked at 10,000 in 2005 for the 90th anniversary of the landing. Last year the crowd was estimated at 7000.
Huge crowds are predicted for the 100th anniversary service in 2015 and Australian tour operators are already fielding interest for it.
"We have a waiting list for 2015," says Nigel Loveday, the corporate director of Cox and Kings, which owns Tempo Holidays, one of the big operators of Gallipoli tours. They typically include visits to Anzac Cove, Brighton Beach, Chunuk Bair, where the New Zealanders penetrated further inland than any other troops, and Lone Pine war cemetry and memorial.
"It has become quite a patriotic thing to do in recent years," Loveday says. "We are seeing many people 60-plus, but also an increasing number of families and young people travelling there."
Ben Ittensohn, the Asia Pacific sales manager for Topdeck travel, which specialises in holidays for young people, says tours to Gallipoli and the Western Front are increasingly popular. "We sell out each year and keep having to add packages to keep up with demand … it has become a rite of passage."
The war historian and author Dr Peter Pedersen has also noted an upswing in Australians visiting the Western Front as the centenary of the outbreak of World War I approaches, a trend likely to be strengthened by the establishment of the Australian Remembrance Trail.
"People are very interested in the battlefields themselves. The battlefields are not very big and it's surprising when you see the size of them and you contemplate the extent of the casualties. People always want to see where a forebear fought to get some idea of what happened on the ground and what he may have gone through.
"Many other people go to see the Western Front because of the enormity of what Australia did. It's fair to say that in 1918, through the AIF achievements, Australia influenced the destiny of the world for the first time in its history and arguably more than any time since."