They're all doing it Oprah's way

WHEN Mary FitzSimons saw Oprah fly over the Great Barrier Reef in a helicopter, she said: "I have to do that."

Then when she saw her cuddle Elvis the koala on Hamilton Island, she said the same thing.

Now, as one of the first Americans to follow in Oprah's footsteps, she has done both.

Ms FitzSimons, 46, of Folsom near Sacramento, is leading the way as new figures reveal an increase in the number of Americans planning to visit this year.

Tourism Australia bosses have remained optimistic that Oprah's trip in December and the screening of her Ultimate Australian Adventure shows in January would reap dividends.

Online travel company Orbitz, a key partner in the Tourism Australia promotion, has seen the amount spent on bookings to Australia increase by almost 10 per cent and the value of hotel reservations go up by 13.6 per cent. Figures for January and February compared with the same period last year show the number of people arranging flights to Australia has gone up by 4.6 per cent.

A poll of 1200 people (200 of whom had not seen the Ultimate Australian Adventure shows) conducted in the US by Repucom found 3 per cent of those interviewed had booked a trip to Australia.

Tourism Australia managing director Andrew McEvoy said this equated to 140,000 visitors with an average spend of $4800. In turn, this amounted to a total of $670 million - a quarter of the amount spent annually by American tourists.

"This has hit the right spot," he said. "A large part of Oprah's audience is aged from 25 to 54 and are in the index of highest earnings at more than $90,000, and that is why we did it.

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"We haven't opened the champagne - I have looked at the bottle and maybe in the next few months we'll crack it."

Signature Travel, a boutique agency, reported passenger numbers increased 52 per cent in February compared with last year.

Tourism Australia spent $1.8 million on the Oprah visit but did not make any direct payment to Oprah or the production company.

David Beirman, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology, Sydney, said January arrivals were down 5 per cent but the fact that flight bookings were up 5 per cent was a "very good sign".

"It's a bargain to get that sort of exposure for destination Australia by somebody of Oprah's profile and market reach," he said.

Ms FitzSimons, who flies home today, has packed a lot into her 18-day solo tour, including visiting Byron Bay, the Whitsundays and Melbourne. She said the trip cost between $8000 and $10,000.

"I got to hug the same koala Oprah hugged - it's almost like I hugged Oprah really," she said.

"A lot of single female friends back home placed an order for me to bring back Australian husbands. Elvis the koala was the closest I got to a single Australian male."

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