Rick Rycroft  /  AP
Hostel owner Robert Smith poses at the roof-top garden at the Jackaroo Hostel in Sydney's Kings Cross on Friday. Guests have extended their stays, sometimes for weeks, because of changes in plans for Queensland trips. The hostel has been turning away up to 15 guests a day, Smith said. Queensland is fighting to regain tourism after suffering deadly flooding and a huge cyclone.
updated 2/22/2011 1:46:15 PM ET 2011-02-22T18:46:15

Dream holiday destination Queensland has a new nightmare. The floodwaters have receded, the cyclone's fury is long spent — the welcome mat is out again. But tourists are staying away in droves.

"We saw all the floods and thought we might be in danger," said Ben Davis, 21, who's in Australia on a yearlong work and holiday visa with his girlfriend, Danielle Hodgson.

The English couple planned a short jaunt to Sydney before heading to the tropical paradise of Australia's northeast coast. But one week has turned into six — and counting — as they watched first one, then a second, natural disaster unfold in Queensland state and decided Sydney was a safer bet.

The sudden change of plans is a small example of a bigger problem for Queensland as it recovers from weeks of deadly flooding and from a massive cyclone.

The disasters have caused an abrupt image malfunction for the state, which includes some of the main drawcards in Australia's $40 billion-a-year tourism industry. Almost 6 million tourists visited Australia last year, and more than half of them went to Queensland, lured by Great Barrier Reef, thousands of miles of pristine beaches and year-round warm weather.

"The vast majority of the tourism businesses in the state have been completely untouched by the disasters. The problem is the phone has stopped ringing," said Anthony Hayes, the head of the government-funded promotional body Tourism Queensland.

Itinerary changes and trip cancellations have cut Queensland tourism revenue by an estimated $500 million since Christmas, said Daniel Gschwind, chief executive officer of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council. Losses are still being assessed, but Gschwind expects that number to rise.

Tourism contributes $9.2 billion to the Queensland economy annually and provides more than 220,000 jobs.

Tourism officials say it is too early to say whether images of the disasters have affected the number of international visitors traveling to Australia. Industry workers and tourists themselves say many that are already in the country are avoiding Queensland.

Davis and Hodgson bought bus passes and planned to travel the popular east coast route through Queensland, stopping in Brisbane, Byron Bay and the Whitsunday Islands before looking for casual farm work in the fruit-growing region near Cairns. An extended stay in Sydney, Australia's most expensive city, almost ruined their entire trip when they had to shell out money for accommodations for which they hadn't planned.

"We actually came really close to having no money, so we would have had to go home," Davis said. "I've only found a job just in time. Otherwise I was going to ring my dad and say, 'Can you sort us a flight out home?'"

Davis, who is staying at a hostel in Sydney, said he knew others in a similar position, staying in Sydney or Melbourne, while waiting for damaged areas to clear up and get back to normal.

While many tourism businesses were able to reopen quickly after the floods and storm, damage to roads was deterring travelers, with fewer caravans and busloads of backpackers making their way along the coast, Gschwind said.

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The town of Airlie Beach — gateway to the tropical Whitsunday Islands — virtually emptied of tourists as Cyclone Yasi bore down on Queensland early this month, said Anthony O'Rourke, owner of the Airlie Waterfront Backpackers. One staffer said she took 17 cancellations in one shift alone, he said.

The storm ended up hitting the coast nearly 200 miles north of Airlie Beach and the town suffered only minimal damage, with most tourism operations opening up again quickly after it passed.

But many operations were still struggling because "everybody was under the impression that the whole of Queensland was flooded and it was a no-go zone," Danielle Seymour, the marketing manager of regional group Tourism Whitsundays.

Hayes said initial reports reflected up to an 80 percent drop in booking rates in some places in Queensland compared to last year, and that small businesses with limited cash flow were suffering most, and had started cutting back on staff.

Other destinations, such as Sydney, have benefited from Queensland's problems.

"Since about mid-December we've been literally full every night and at capacity," said Robert Smith, owner of the Jackaroo Hostel in Sydney's Kings Cross, a nightclub and backpacker district that is humming with activity. "It's been good for us but it's been bad for Queensland."

Guests have extended their stays, sometimes for weeks, because of changes in plans for Queensland trips, and the hostel has been turning away up to 15 guests a day, Smith said.

In recognition of the importance of the tourism industry, the Australian and Queensland governments have each contributed $5 million for a support package aimed at attracting visitors back to the state, though Gschwind said more help was needed.

He said word of mouth was one of the keys to convincing travelers that the state was open for business, and the Queensland tourism council was using social networks to help. It has created a Facebook page called "Take a Queensland Holiday" where visitors can post photographs and stories to show that Queensland destinations are in good shape and encouraging others to come.

For Davis and Hodgson, making a trip to Queensland may be back on the cards now that the disasters have passed but it is not the priority it once was.

"We'll probably go up there in two months' time," Davis said. "We're enjoying Sydney, so it could have been worse, it's worked out OK."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Awesome Australia

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  1. The sacred monolith of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is located in Central Australia's Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which is a World Heritage site. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Be careful going down the road in Western Australia. There could be camels, wombats or kangaroos trying to cross. (Nick Rains / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A kangaroo stands next to a rare waterhole as sheep gather and look for food on a station near White Cliffs in the state of New South Wales. (William West / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tourists look at spectacular cathedral termite mounds in the Litchfield National Park near Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. Often visible along the Northern Territory, also know as the "Top End" highways, they are amongst the largest mounds built by termites anywhere in the world and are reminiscent of mediaeval cathedrals. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A koala rests on a branch at Sydney Wildlife World, which features Australian flora and fauna set amongst natural habitats and ecosystems. Koalas feed almost exclusively on tough, toxic eucalyptus leaves, which they can digest because they have the longest gut for their size of any mammal. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Located near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, the East MacDonnell Ranges Aerial are part of the remains of mountains that once went as high as the Himalayas. The East MacDonnell's are more varied and less crowded than the more popular West McDonnell Range. (Brian Geach / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Visitors stand on a cantilever at the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk tourist attraction that overlooks rainforest and coastline in the center in the Illawarra region, south of Sydney, in Australia's New South Wales. The Illawarra region gets its special character from the way the escarpment meets the sea. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pinnacles, ancient limestone formations, rise out of the sand in Nambung National Park. There are thousands of pillars in this Western Australian area, which offer photographers images at sunrise and sunset. (Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Three Sisters jut out of the Blue Mountains near Katoomba, New South Wales. The character of the rock formation changes as the sunlight brings out magnificent color.
    According to Aboriginal legend, there were three sisters in the Katoomba tribe who were in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. The brothers were not happy with this law and used force to capture the sisters, which caused a battle.
    A witchdoctor turned the sisters into stone to protect them from harm, but he was killed before he could reverse the spell. And so the sisters remained in the rock formation. (Lincoln Fowler / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The large leaves of the Canna x generalis flowering plant from the Cannaceae family display their unusual coloring in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens were founded on their current site by Governor Macquarie in 1816 and is the oldest scientific institution in Australia, playing a major role in the acclimatization of plants from other regions. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A droving team heads off from camp during the Great Australian Cattle Drive preview on May 7, 2009, in Oodnadatta, Australia. The Great Australian Cattle Drive takes place July 30-Aug. 29, 2010, and offers the general public the chance to experience an Australian adventure. (Quinn Rooney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  14. Mount Borradaile in the Northern Territory was inhabited for up to 50,000 years by aboriginal tribes, and it's cave walls feature some of the best examples of aboriginal art. The drawings show a huge range of dates and events. The mount and the surrounding Arnhem Land draw tourists from all over who want to see real Australian history. (James Fisher / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The wetlands of the Yellow Water area of the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territories are a mecca for wildlife and flora. The flora in the park is among the richest in northern Australia with more than 2,000 plant species recorded. The park is also considered to be one of the most weed-free national parks in the world. (Adam Pretty / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rex the crocodile swims in a tank at Sydney Wildlife World on March 29, 2010. Rex, a saltwater crocodile, was caught in the Northern Territory and moved to his current habitat in December last year. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Cows have the right of way on Norfolk Island, east of the Australian mainland, where motorists also take the time to wave to each driver they pass. (Lawrence Bartlett / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is a combination of a shrine, museum and archive, which commemorates the sacrifice of Australians who died in war. (Geoff Lung / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A giant statue of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, the location of his final stand, about 110 miles northeast of Melbourne. Long dismissed as tourist kitsch, Australia's "Big Things" -- giant models of everything from koalas to pineapples -- are now being heritage-listed and recognized as works of folk art. (William West / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The Ghan railway, which runs from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, offers travelers the chance to see great Australian landscapes through the country's Red Center. (Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Vineyards are shown in the internationally renowned Margaret River wine region in the south-west corner of Western Australia, situated between the two coastal capes of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A rock climber heads up a dolerite stack known as Totem Pole in Tasmania's Cape Hauy. (Nick Hancock / Tourism Australia) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Beach-goers soak in the sun on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The Gold Coast is a favorite tourist area that features some of the world's finest beaches and lively nightlife. (Sergio Dionisio / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. American Kelly Slater performs a cutback during an aerial expression session on day one of Surfsho at Bondi Beach on March 12, 2010, in Sydney, Australia. (Cameron Spencer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park off of Australia's coast offers one of the world's best places to snorkel. The reef is one of the richest, most diverse ecosystems and extends from the tip of Cape York in Queensland and goes south almost to Bundaberg. And it takes up an area larger than Victoria and Tasmania combined. (Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. These massive porites corals at the Great Barrier Reef are hundreds of years old. The corals are like trees in that each year a new band is laid down in their skeletons that record their environmental histories. (Jurgen Freund / Freund Factory) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Fish of all colors swim in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's northeastern coast. In January of 2009, Australia announced a crackdown on pollution of the Great Barrier Reef as the World Heritage-listed site comes under increasing threat from toxic chemicals and climate change. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Crimson clouds provide a beautiful backdrop during a match between Australia and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, Australia. (Adam Pretty / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is an iconic landmark in Australia's most populous state of New South Wales, with a population in excess of 7million people, is shown in this photo taken on May 26, 2009. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Sydney Opera House is easily one of Australia's most recognizable landmarks. The buiilding, on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbor, is a multi-venue performing arts center and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Greg Wood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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