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Australia Welcoming More Arab Gulf Tourists

Tourism officials in Australia say the number of visitors from Arab Gulf nations is increasing. Airlines are scheduling more flights between the Middle East and Australia to accommodate the rising popularity. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney on where the Arab tourists are going and why.

Australia's tourism authority says arrivals from Arab Gulf states have increased by 25 percent so far this year - mostly from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

The northern Australian state of Queensland is a top choice for many Arab travelers.

Paul Buggy from Tourism Queensland says they are headed to the state's beach resorts.

"They are stopping off in Sydney and Melbourne and having a couple of days there, but primarily their number one destination is the Gold Coast. They like staying in apartments, of which the Gold Coast has plenty to offer," Buggy said. "You have theme parks and shopping centers who have put in prayer rooms. The access to Halal food is a lot greater."

Looking after the cultural needs of Arab visitors also includes placing arrows in hotel rooms that point toward Islam's holy city of Mecca. Facing the city during prayers is essential for Muslims.

Arab vacationers like to escape the scorching summer heat of their homelands, visiting Australia most in July and August - winter in the southern hemisphere.

Tourism officials here expect the strong growth in the Arab market to continue.

Etihad Airways - the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates - plans to increase the number of weekly flights to Sydney early next year and introduce new services to Brisbane.

The number of Arab visitors has been rising sharply since 2002, as many abandon destinations such as the United States and Europe.

Arab tourists have complained of hostility in the United States and are wary of tighter U.S. visa restrictions imposed after the attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001.

Travel agents say Australia's reputation as a safe and friendly alternative is growing.

It's estimated that tourists from the Arab Gulf states spent more than $12 billion last year on overseas vacations.