Nobody does surprises like Oprah Winfrey.

To kick off her 25th and final season, the billionaire talk show host (and extravagant gift-giver) announced live during her season premiere on Monday that she’ll be taking the entire 300-member studio audience on an all-expense-paid, seven-night trip to Australia in December.

Two episodes of her show will be filmed Down Under, including a spectacular finale at the Sydney Opera House, which will be renamed the Sydney Oprah House for the occasion.

The deal, which took more than a year to put together, is being billed as a coup for Tourism Australia, despite a $3 million price tag for the whole endeavor.

John Brown, former tourism minister, declared it the best tourism-marketing ploy since actor Paul Hogan ("Crocodile Dundee") put a shrimp on the barbie during Brown's tenure as tourism minister.

"If the worldwide publicity that Oprah will bring to Australia does what I think it will, the benefits will be something you couldn’t buy," Brown said.

Geoff Dixon, Tourism Australia chairman, called it an "amazing opportunity for Australian tourism."

Qantas (a partner in the deal with Oprah broadcaster Network Ten), several state tourism bodies, the tourist board and the opera house will fly the audience members and 150 of Oprah’s crew to Australia.

Piloting the Qantas flight will be Qantas ambassador-at-large and actor John Travolta, who stepped out of the nose of a Qantas jet that rolled onto the stage to announce that the long-haul flight would be very comfortable in the an Airbus A380.

The two episodes filmed during the visit will air in the U.S. early in 2011, and then in other countries. Oprah’s reach is long — the show is seen by 40 million viewers in the U.S. and is broadcast in 145 countries.

Reaction Down Under was mixed. Many comments on blogs and websites said the Oprah effect could significantly boost tourism and visibility.

But some called it a disaster, figuring the hefty price tag would ultimately be paid by taxpayers.


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