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Chinese tourists cancel trips to Australia after wildfires

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Tourism operators say images of the fires broadcast worldwide could have a lasting impact on international arrivals.

Sydney

AUSTRALIA'S largest tourism market is turning away as the smoke shrouding Sydney and Melbourne and images of fire-ravaged beach resorts deter Chinese New Year tourists, in a further blow to the economy.

Visitors from mainland China spend an estimated A$12 billion (S$11.1 billion) annually Down Under, with trips in January and February accounting for almost a quarter of annual arrivals. Tourism operators say images of the fires broadcast worldwide could have a lasting impact on international arrivals, the nation's third-largest export earner.

"The media coverage made Australia look like a third world country with thousands of refugee fleeing and village after village burnt to the ground," said Cheryl Zhong of Equity Travel in Sydney, having experienced a wave of cancellations over the past 10 days.

"People even asked if most of the koalas were killed in the fire and there's no marsupials left to see." She is concerned about the outlook from March, warning that if the perception that the whole of Australia is ablaze isn't reversed, bookings could fall by more than 30 per cent.

Ms Zhong says that Australia is currently not perceived as a safe destination with clean air, which is very important for Chinese visitors who are often seeking a break from their own crowded and polluted cities.

Ms Zhong's comments were echoed by David Tang, sales and marketing director of Grand City Tours in Melbourne, who expects a 15 per cent-20 per cent drop in Chinese visitors this Chinese New Year.

"The global media coverage of fires in the countryside and smoke in the cities encouraged some people to delay or decide not to visit us this year," he said. "We'll definitely be down this year compared with last year."

Major tourism markets of New Zealand, the US and UK raised travel warnings for Australia and the blazes forced a pause to a new international tourism advertising campaign led by pop star Kylie Minogue. The Australian Open tennis tournament has also been under scrutiny with practice sessions cancelled in Melbourne Wednesday over air-quality concerns for players.

The fallout from tourism cancellations has been magnified outside of the cities. "It's like a ghost-town around here," according to Coralie Bell, tourism manager from the South Coast of New South Wales that is about three hours from Sydney, despite most of the tourism infrastructure unharmed by the fires.

"This is our peak time of year and it's essential to a lot of businesses to do well now in order to remain viable through the cooler months. If we don't get tourists soon, some are worrying they won't make it to the winter," Ms Bell said. BLOOMBERG