Ayers Rock Gains Ground With U.S. Visitors

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AYERS ROCK, Australia -- Ayers Rock in Australia's Red Center is becoming increasingly popular with Americans.

According to Nick Baker, Ayers Rock Resort's director of sales and marketing, U.S. visitors increased 14.6% in the past nine months to 7,694, compared with the previous nine-month period. He attributed this, in part, to increased U.S. sales and marketing efforts, with the area being included in more tour operator programs.

However, a major reason for an overall traffic increase was the extension of the resort's airport runway in late 1996. It now can take 737-400s. Previously, it could handle only smaller 737s, and Qantas and Ansett increased seats by more than 30%. "We're now getting more people coming up from Sydney for the weekend, a two-hour-and-50-minute flight," he said.

Ayers Rock

Ayers Rock Resort, with five hotels totaling 600 rooms, has a monopoly on accommodations and is 12 miles from Ayers Rock, known to the aboriginal people as Uluru. Uluru is a spiritual center as a well as Australia's geographic center and is the centerpiece of the 820-square-mile Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

"People who have not been here see it as a single rock in the desert, but there is much to see and experience," Baker said. "We have the native culture and plenty of different plants and wildlife."

Uluru, 1,400 feet high, is six miles long. Activity options include walking tours and tours by air, four-wheel-drive, the back seat of motorbikes (or ride your own), motorcoach and, the latest, camel. Camel tours range from cocktail rides in the resort to treks in the desert. Baker said more ecotours and adventure tours and activities are planned, including the opening of an isolated 12-tent luxury campground late this year.

The resort opened 12 years ago -- about the same time ownership of the region reverted to the local Anagu people who leased the park area back to Australia's national park authority. It has tennis, shopping, an outdoor amphitheater with nightly aboriginal entertainment and a campground. Including the campground, the resort can house up to 3,000 people a night.

Properties are the luxury Sails in the Desert Hotel, Desert Gardens Hotel, Emu Walk Apartments, Outback Pioneer Hotel and the Spinifex Lodge. A conference center opened in 1994, and in late 1996 the resort completed a $24 million renovation and expansion. The project included the renovation of rooms and public areas at Sails in the Desert, a room addition at Desert Gardens and the runway extension.

Most Americans stay at Sails in the Desert and others at Desert Gardens, with the market split 50-50 between FITs and those on escorted tours. Hotel rates start at approximately $81. At Sails in the Desert, rates range from about $275 to $496.

The resort is owned by Ayers Rock Resort Co., in which the Northern Territory Government has a 40% interest. The company has expanded, buying properties at the two other Red Center destinations. In February, it bought the Kings Canyon Resort, with 105 hotel rooms and 80 dormitory beds, at Kings Canyon, 190 miles from Uluru. Two years ago, it bought the 120-room Alice Springs Resort in Alice Springs, 300 miles away.

Ayers Rock is the region's major attraction, followed by the town of Alice Springs, with aboriginal cultural attractions. With the two additional properties, the resort plans to increase touring activity options and programs, opening up little known areas. Few Americans go to King's Canyon, which besides its rock formations includes a green valley, Baker said.

He said the average stay at Ayers Rock is two nights, adding that meetings and incentives are a growing business, now accounting for 4% to 5% of business. Recently, for example, it had a Heineken group of 300 people -- one of its largest groups ever -- from Italy. About 61% of its visitors are international (Europe, 48%; Asia, 33%, and North America, 14.5%).

Last year, the resort appointed Sterling Hotels & Resorts, an international reservations company, to handle its bookings.

Sterling: Phone (800) 637-7200

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