New love ... Vera Ring recently returned home from her dream 10-week European holiday. Photo: Janie Barrett
Australians are known as great travellers: curious about a distant world, undaunted by geographic isolation and willing to try anything and anywhere, more than once.
But we can be assured that we really are among the world's greatest travellers, with research showing that Australians stay longer, spend more and return with the highest frequency of any long-haul traveller.
And, with the Australian dollar continuing to trade well above the still benchmark US greenback and more than favourably against the euro, there's no sign of an end to the remarkable surge in Aussies holidaying abroad. Australia, with a population of just 22 million, punches well above its weight, especially with the once lucrative European and the US markets affected by economic downturns or worse.
In 2011-12, Australians made a record 8 million short-term overseas trips, according to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, compared with just over 3 million in 2001-02. The top five destinations were New Zealand, Indonesia (Bali, ostensibly), the US, Thailand and Britain. And Australians are on track to take 10 million such trips a year by 2020, based on a recent report by Tourism Australia.
"We're valued as travellers because we're high-value travellers," says Jayson Westbury, of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents. "Everyone wants us, particularly in Europe and Asia … we're big spenders … we love to shop and we love to eat and drink. The dollar would have to fall to 50¢ for this balloon to burst."
The buoyant dollar, which is allowing us to travel not only more frequently but in more comfort and style (five-star now instead of three-star a decade ago) and longer (months, even, rather than just a few weeks 10 years ago) is a major reason for the boom. But Westbury believes it's only one factor. Despite the travails of the national carrier, Qantas, airline capacity, as a result of the federal government's "open skies" policy, has never been better.
Convenient and cheaper one-stop flights to and from Europe, which carried, excluding Britain and Ireland, more than 610,000 Australians in 2009-10, are making it easier for Australians to get where they want to go and, as Westbury points out, to travel aboard one of a trio of the world's leading airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines.
Not surprisingly, with such numbers, the printery at the headquarters of the Australian Passport Office in Canberra is running hot, with 1,747,670 Australian passports issued in 2011-12 compared with 981,409 in 2001-02. That necessitates the printing of 7500 to 8000 passports five days a week, to meet the demands of peripatetic Aussies, says the Australian Passport Office, with as much as half the population now being bearers of the document.
Despite the fact that most Australians reject long-distance train travel at home, Rail Europe, which markets train travel on the continent, has already sold more than $40 million worth of tickets to Australian travellers this year, a spokeswoman reports. This cements Australia's position, extraordinarily, as the pre-eminent market in the world for the group, which sells fares to 44 other countries.
Cruising, ocean and river based, is another booming segment of the outbound travel market. Peter Hosper, managing director of The Travel Authority, which specialises in corporate and leisure travel, recently returned from a European river cruise with Australian and American passengers, half and half.
Elsewhere, Australia, which has traditionally been ranked ninth or 10th in overall tourist arrivals for Britain, moved up to eighth last year, according to a spokeswoman from Visit Britain.
And, in terms of expenditure, Australia ranks even higher, rising up the rankings from sixth in 2009, to fourth last year.
As of this year, Australia is Britain's second-ranked long-haul tourism market in terms of arrivals and expenditure after the US.
Australians visiting France have doubled in a decade from 250,000 to 500,000 today. Across the Pacific, in the US, Australian visitors rank in the top 10 list for overseas tourists, coming in as high as No.8 in recent times.
The market has grown in the past decade from just 276,000 Australians visiting the US in 2001-02 to nearly 820,000 in 2011-12.
Vera Ring is characteristic of many Australians who now value travel more highly than any other luxury item. This year, in a dream 10-week holiday, she visited England, Scotland, Russia, France, the Greek Islands and Turkey, spending between $25,000 and $30,000. Ring, who works in the aged care sector, doesn't regret a cent.
''Travel is something I've always wanted to do since I was 15,'' Ring, who is now 52, says. ''It gives me enormous joy, broadens my horizons and makes me thankful for what we have in Australia. Some people want a unit by the beach but travel is how I want to spend my money.''