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Visiting Backpackers Are Getting a First-Rate G'Day in Australia

July 14, 2002|LUCY IZON

Australia is one of the more welcoming countries for budget travelers. Although some tourism officials in other parts of the world lament that cost-conscious travelers don't spend much money, Australia has proved the opposite is true, at least Down Under.

Backpackers actually contribute more to the economy than short-term, big-spending tourists, according to a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald. A backpacker, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says, is someone who stays at least one night in a budget hostel.

The studies conducted by Australian Bureau of Statistics found:

* Backpackers make up the fastest-growing segment of the tourism market in Australia. The average backpacker on a visa that permits work spends about $4,500, compared with $2,100 for the average tourist who stays in a hotel.

* In Australia, about 8,000 people are employed in housing, feeding and transporting the estimated 400,000 backpackers who visit each year.

* Backpackers also tend to spread their money in other markets, not just to dive operators, bus companies and rafting specialists but also to grocery stores, gas stations and pubs.

With that kind of impact, it's not surprising that a significant tourism industry has developed to serve backpackers. Here's a sampling of services:

Wayward Bus (www.waywardbus.com.au), a small, independent tour operator with a good reputation among travelers, helps backpackers explore a new region, then drops them at their next destination. Travel is by 16- to 22-passenger vehicles. There are no age restrictions, but most passengers are in their 20s and 30s.

The company offers tours to Kangaroo Island and Alice Springs, among other places. One of its most popular routes is the 3 1/2-day trip between Melbourne and Adelaide, which includes the scenic Great Ocean Road. Departures are at least once a week year-round. Tours cost about $177 and include three nights' stay in a hostel, three breakfasts, three lunches and entry to national parks.

Since 1995, Pioneering Spirit has shuttled small groups of backpackers on three-day journeys from Sydney up the east coast to Byron Bay, one of Australia's favorite surfing destinations. Along the route you may spot whales, dolphins, kangaroos and wallabies. Pioneering Spirit's next round of tours starts Aug. 9.

This small company will take up to 21 passengers at a time, with stops for wine tastings in the Hunter Valley, rain-forest walks, surfing, rafting and sea kayaking at Coffs Harbour and visits to a volunteer-run koala hospital at Port Macquarie. Overnight stays are at homesteads and pubs (twin rooms). The trip costs $145. Call 011-61-2-6685-7721 or visit www.pioneeringspirit.com.au.

YHA Australia, which is affiliated with the worldwide Hostelling International, has more than 150 locations providing low-cost lodgings in renovated hotels, guest houses, farms and schools. Some are in gateway cities, others in rural areas and places of historical significance.

Nightly rates are $6 to $14 for a bed in a shared room. Many also have twin, double and family rooms available. On the YHA Web site, www.yha.org.au, you can get details on packages that combine accommodations and transportation. For example, you can purchase a three-month pass for Greyhound bus transportation from Sydney to Cairns and vouchers for 10 nights' YHA accommodation in a shared room for $291. This offer is valid until March 31. Don't purchase too many voucher nights ahead of your departure, because in some towns you may want to stay somewhere other than a YHA.

Oz Experience (www.ozexperience.com) is the big gorilla when it comes to backpacker bus services in Australia. This hop-on-hop-off service has a variety of routes, some to popular destinations and some off the beaten track. The buses stop for activities, and the driver-guides will book budget accommodations and drop off and pick up passengers at hostels. Passes are sold in Australia and through many North American student travel services, such as STA Travel; (800) 781-4040, www.statravel.com.

For young travelers heading to Switzerland this summer, the beautiful lakeside city of Geneva, home to the European offices of the United Nations and the International Red Cross, is again offering free youth information services. If you want help with accommodation or sightseeing, look for the youth information bus parked across from the city's rail station.

*

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance travel writer. Her Internet site is www.izon.com.

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