Queensland OK for Travel, Despite Floods, Cyclone

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Queensland flooding

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With cyclone Yasi hitting Queensland a little less ferociously than expected, considering it came on the heels of some headline-making floods, travelers are questioning whether any area of the Australian state is safe for travel.

The Category 5 storm struck Cairns Thursday and while it produced damage in the form of torn-off roofs and downed power, no deaths or serious injuries were reported. The Bureau of Meteorology has downgraded the tropical storm, the largest ever to hit Australia, to a category 1.

But some of the reported devastation to the travel industry appears to be bunk.

The area has suffered from a string of natural disasters, the first coming in the form of floods in December and January. More than two dozen people died in total, and reports claimed tourism would take a year or more to recover in some areas. The area is home to some major traveler destinations, including the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands.

Right after the floods, Kim Marsden, director of online booking company Travstar, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the media exaggerated the effect the disaster had on prime tourist spots. Prior to Yasi, Cairns remained relatively unscathed, as did Port Douglas.

The cyclone presents a different picture for some areas. Tourists had to evacuate from Cairns, the Whitsundays and Townsville early in the week in addition to 10 hotels in the northern part of the state.

Most visitors remain in evacuation centers. The storm also disrupted Chinese New Year celebrations. Daniel Gschwind, chief executive of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, says the damage to Queensland from both natural disasters may reach $1 billion. Travel to Townsville, Mission Beach, Ingham, Tully and Innisfail remains barred. Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands, which avoided most of the expected destruction from Yasi, are still asking visitors to stay away. Official reports on when it will be OK to travel to these areas won't be available until officials fully assess the damage from the storm over the weekend.

As with the floods, the biggest hurdle some areas will face in terms of tourism is negative perception. Gschwind told ABC News the view of Queensland as a ruined area may "last longer than the infrastructure and the disruption to traffic at the moment."

Neil Scanlon, Queensland regional general manager of hotel chain Accor, told the Queensland Times, "From a tourism point of view, people still think half of Queensland is under flood and now they think the other half has a cyclone." Colin Bowman, head of marketing for Flight Centre, told the same publication that people are waiting to book trips to Cairns until the full effect of Yasi emerges.

Spots like the Gold and Sunshine coasts, the Fraser Coast, Toowoomba and the Queensland Outback "are currently accessible and ready to welcome visitors," according to Queensland Holidays, the official tourism site for the state. The site notes that while Brisbane and the Capricorn region are still cleaning up from the floods, the majority of tourism services are up and running. The Great Barrier Reef is also open for business.

In addition, Queensland planned to launch a national and international campaign to resuscitate tourism in the area through discounted accommodation and flights right after the floods hit the state. Tiger Airways will also start a new service to Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast from Sydney as of March 27.

So the best thing travelers can do if they still want to head to Queensland is keep their bookings, especially if they're for one of the areas unaffected by the floods and Yasi. Prospective tourists should keep an eye out for flight discounts and hotel deals in the coming weeks and months.

Update: After publication, one death was confirmed.

Reporter Lauren Fritsky is based in Sydney.

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