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What crisis? Tourists still heading for the red centre  Apr 20, 2009

The Australian tourism industry is facing an uncertain year with predictions the global economic crisis will see the number of overseas visitors to Australia drop by about 250,000.

The tourism industry in central Australia, with attractions such as Uluru, is largely reliant on international visitors.

The industry says tourist numbers have dropped off, but not by as much as first feared - although there are concerns those still travelling are tightening their belts, spending less and being more cautious about planning future trips.

At sunset at Uluru, tourists line up along a sand dune sipping champagne and watching the changing face of the rock.

Way Outback Tours is one company that operates here and it says business is booming.

Phil Taylor is the company's manager of operations.

"We are pinching ourselves every day and just sort of wondering where is this downturn that they're talking about? Is it still to come as far as we're concerned?" he said.

But there are plenty of free spaces in the car parks. APT runs coach tours around here and it's been cutting back its trips.

Warwick Rock is the general manager.

"The UK market was an extremely strong market for us and that's had a little bit of a drop away with that on our short breaks APT coach touring," he said.

"We've also seen a fairly major drop in the Japanese market. That's been going on for quite some time, almost a year now, even before the official downturn."

In the last year visitor numbers to Uluru have dropped about 8 per cent and that's mainly because there are fewer international visitors.

The resort here is on sale and its operator Voyages wouldn't disclose its occupancy rates.

Renton Kelly, the chairman of Tourism Central Australia is keeping a close eye on the numbers.

"Tourism in central Australia is one of the most important industries," he said.

When he took on the job last year he feared what might lie ahead.

"However, surprisingly the confidence level and the number of visitors we're seeing in central Australia hasn't had the impact that one would associate with the press report of the past month or so," he said.

Still travelling, but on a budget

And some international visitors see Australia as a cheaper destination.

Carol Zimmerman is visiting Uluru from Arizona.

"Because we're going through an economic crisis as well, we couldn't afford to go to a lot of other places, but Australia was a little bit more affordable for us," she said.

But she says despite the good exchange rates at the moment, she's travelling on a budget.

"We'd love to travel and unfortunately for our economic times and I think yours too, we've really had to conserve," she said.

"We've gone a little lower budget along the way but we've also decided that this is such a trip of a lifetime that we were going to do it so we're hoping we're helping your economy."

"We're staying at the Outback at Pioneer Lodge which was the lower budget one, but it's still just as beautiful to sit here and look at this rock."

The tourism industry is trying to encourage domestic tourists to travel more within Australia, but they too appear to be spending less.

Bev and her family are visiting from Sydney

"You just don't know what's going to happen. If you've got employment and you've got a mortgage I guess you're not too badly off at the moment, but you don't know what's going to happen a bit further down the track," she said.

"We're doing it a little bit cheaper, we're not doing a lot of the tours, we're doing a lot of things ourselves.

"We brought all our food with us, we packed sandwiches for lunch and we brought a chicken and some rolls and some drinks in the esky and things like that."

Those cutbacks are being felt throughout the red centre.

Rex Neindorf runs the reptile centre in Alice Springs.

"I think people are still watching where they spend their money. Unfortunately we're one of the first things that suffers because it's an expendable item for them," he said.

"People will still travel, they still need to get food, they need to get fuel and still need to get their accommodation and so those things are always sorted."

The local industry believes it will get through the tougher times but tourists are being cautious.

Robert Young is on holiday at Uluru but at his home in the Barossa Valley he drives around tourists in a coach for a living. He says he won't be rushing into his own next trip.

"We're still sort of helpless. [We] probably won't go for another one for quite some time now because of the money situation. Also you don't know the situation job-wise," he said.

What crisis? Tourists still heading for the red centre
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