THE high Australian dollar is taking a savage toll on the nation’s tourism industry, with official figures showing foreign visitors’ spending has slumped to its lowest in four years.

Income from foreign tourists is estimated to have fallen to $2.63 billion in February, the lowest monthly figure since December 2007, according to the Bureau of Statistics. Foreign visitors now spent about $100 million less a month on tourism-linked services than they did a year ago, the bureau said in trade figures published last week.

In a double whammy for the industry, the high dollar has also tempted thousands more Australians to take their holidays overseas.

99 Nice Hotels in Sydney, Australia

Australians are estimated to have spent $2.82 billion on overseas tourism services in February, the most on record.

The managing director of the Australian Tourist Export Council, Felicia Mariani, said the high dollar was just one of many challenges. Another adverse factor was foreign governments’ taxes on long-haul flights. Britain this month raised its tax on long-haul flights, and there are growing fears that cash-strapped European nations will introduce similar levies.

”It’s an expensive destination, and now there is a tax being applied to long-haul travel departing from the UK,” Ms Mariani said. ”We have to be concerned that other European countries may well pick that up.”

With Australia’s relatively high wages also raising hotel running costs here, Ms Mariani said the industry needed to have a ”good hard look” at ensuring it was offering foreign visitors value for money. Spending on tourism is notoriously difficult to measure, and the ABS says its figures are a timely guide to the industry’s health rather than a perfect measure of tourism spending.

But the number of people arriving here confirms the industry’s woes, with short-term arrivals falling by 0.2 per cent in the year to February, while the number of Australians heading overseas jumped 9.1 per cent.

Despite the challenges facing tourism, there are also some bright spots.

The chief executive of Wotif.com, Robbie Cooke, said there had been strong growth across Asia, and some parts of the domestic industry.

”In terms of inbound tourism, we’ve seen some strong growth coming from Asia, with a nearly 20 per cent increase in visitors from Malaysia to Australia in the past couple of months, and this has been increasing steadily,” Mr Cooke said.

”On the domestic front, places like Cairns, Sydney, Gold Coast, Melbourne and the New South Wales north coast have seen good growth in leisure bookings.”

The industry is also benefiting from a surge in Chinese visitors.

Ms Mariani said some city hotels were enjoying their highest occupancy rates since the Sydney Olympics, but stressed that tourism had its own ”two-speed economy”.

”The regional parts of Australia who relied on Australians to take a holiday at home are now being hurt by the fact that it’s very cheap to head overseas,” Ms Mariani said. ABS figures show more than 85 per cent of hotel rooms in Sydney and Perth booked in the December quarter. Average rates surged by 4.5 per cent and 15.5 per cent, respectively. But the Great Barrier Reef, which depends on overseas visitors, had only 55 per cent to 65 per cent of its hotel rooms booked in the latest peak season between June and September.