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U.S. visits down after Oprah’s visit to Oz

Oprah cuddles koalHamiltIslWildlife Park Australia. | Phocourtesy Harpo Productions

Oprah cuddles a koala at Hamilton Island Wildlife Park in Australia. | Photo courtesy Harpo Productions

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Updated: July 27, 2011 7:44PM

Tourism boost, or just a phantom of the Oprah?

That’s the clever headline on a story that ran last week in the Australian newspaper The Sunday Age, which questioned the economic benefit of Oprah’s taxpayer-funded tour of Oz last year.

Federal and state governments in Australia forked out $5.4 million ($5 million Australian) to treat Oprah and her 300 audience members to a whirlwind trip Down Under in December. The resulting four-part “Ultimate Australian Adventure” aired in January.

Tourism officials clearly were hoping that Oprah’s Midas touch would translate into long lines of Yanks at passport control. They claimed that the talk show star’s highly publicized tour was worth $390 million ($360 million Australian) in global publicity.

So far, the publicity hasn’t paid off. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that U.S. arrivals for the first five months of 2011 fell by 0.8 percent compared to the same time period last year. (The article noted that the head of Tourism Australia initially — and erroneously — told a reporter at another paper that the number of U.S. travelers was up in the wake of Winfrey’s visit.)

The drop was even worse among tourists from Britain and Canada, where the shows also aired.

The article said some industry experts suggested the money used to court Oprah and her entourage “should have been spent on the booming Chinese market.”

Tourism Australia chief Andrew McEvoy defended Oprah’s visit in The Sunday Age, saying the weak U.S. economy has hampered travel to Australia.

“As we’ve said all along, the ‘Oprah effect’ was never going to be an instant phenomenon,” McEvoy told the paper. “We believe the full impact will be seen over many years to come.”

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