SYDNEY - Pillars of fire and smoke from bushfires are tarnishing Australia's reputation for pristine vistas abounding in wildlife and wreaking havoc on tourism, operators said, as authorities are forced to cancel concerts, close parks and evacuate towns.
The smoke has shrouded entire cities and driven air quality to unhealthy levels, with at least 10 people dying in the fires in the past week, while colonies of animals such as koalas and flying foxes have been destroyed.
"Seeing all the images of fires on television and social media is not going to help, it puts a dent in Australia's reputation as a safe tourist destination," said Shane Oliver, chief economist at AMP Capital.
"It's come at a time when the economy was already fragile," he added, ranking tourism as Australia's fourth biggest export whose strength officials had been counting on to help offset a domestic reluctance to spend.
Bushfires burning for weeks near the world heritage site of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in the southeastern state of New South Wales have driven away tourists.
As visitors take to social media to warn others to steer clear, the number of busloads of tourists each day has fallen to about 4 from 15 or 20, said Stacey Reynolds, a receptionist at the Blue Mountains Backpacker Hostel in Katoomba.
"They told people not to come in and it's affected everything, from restaurants to motels to backpackers to cafes," she added. "The streets are empty."
Although there is no published nationwide data on tourism since the fires took hold in late spring, Australia attracted 2.71 million holiday makers last summer, up 3.2 percent from the previous year, as many fled the northern hemisphere winter.
Hotels in the largest city of Sydney saw a fall of 10 percent in guest numbers in December, the Accommodation Association of Australia said.
"The fires and the smoke have had a real brand and reputational damage in Sydney," added its chief executive, Dean Long.
The train and cable network of Scenic World in the Blue Mountains had 50,000 fewer visitors in December, down 50 percent from last year, Chief Experience Officer Amanda Byrne said.
Scenic World was open, but the hotels around the area are having more cancellations than bookings, she said.
Government agency Tourism Australia, which released a new advertisement last month to lure Britons to beautiful beaches and stunning scenery, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The scorching temperatures and bushfires, which have also burnt vineyards in South Australia and warmed the usually cool island state of Tasmania, will hit the sector hard, said Judith Mair, who studies tourism, environment and consumer behavior.
"It will be in stages - immediately with evacuations, dislocations and cancellations, but also in the longer term, because tourists buy holidays based on the image of a destination and Australia's is being badly affected," said Mair, a professor at the University of Queensland Business School.
Hundreds of national parks in the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, thronged by 100 million visitors a year, have closed.
With fires burning nearby, Christopher Warren, co-proprietor of a bed and breakfast in Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales, said he had to evacuate his guests.
"The worst-case scenario is that we would be hit by a fire and our business would be destroyed," said Warren, who saw the best case as a loss of income exceeding A$80,000 ($56,048), through the disruption of 3 of his busiest months.
Paul Mackie, who uses AirBnB to rent out an apartment on Sydney's Bondi Beach to British and European tourists in the peak summer holiday period was hit by last-minute cancellations.
"I had bookings for the whole of this period going for the next couple of months, but a lot have cancelled because they said they saw the news of the fires," Mackie added.
AirBnB declined to comment.
A Sydney airport spokesman said it did not have recent statistics on whether the fires were hitting arrival. A Qantas spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the wildfires had hurt bookings.
The fires have spotlighted Australia's environment policies, criticized most recently at a UN summit in Madrid, said Susanne Becken, a professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University in Queensland.
"The government's response to the climate crisis does not bode well...and this is not good for tourism," Becken said.