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Last Updated: Monday, 25 June 2007, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
'Neighbours effect' tried on Japanese
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Tourism chiefs in Australia are hoping that Japan's addiction to soap operas will help entice thousands of visitors to its shores.

Publicity picture for Neighbours
Neighbours has been a huge hit in Britain for the past two decades

They want the so-called "Neighbours effect" to influence potential Japanese tourists in much the same way as it transfixed the British.

The exploits of Kylie, Jason and their Ramsay Street friends were widely credited with boosting British visitor numbers to Australia.

Now, in the face of a worrying slump in tourism from Japan, the Australian government is helping to create a new Japanese soap set down under. For Kylie Minogue read the Japanese starlet Yoshino Kimura.

Plotlines are already in the works. One centres upon a group of Japanese students living in a beach house on the golden sands of Queensland.

'Various adventures'

Japanese tourism is worth A$1.98bn ($1.68bn) to the Australian economy each year, with 624,000 visitors annually.

But last year's tourist numbers showed a 7.6% slump, while last month the figure slipped by an alarming 21%.

A few Japanese producers have already appointed someone to represent them, so there's fantastic interest
Tourism Minister Fran Bailey

The strength of the Australian dollar is partly to blame - since 2001 it has leapt in value against the yen by a staggering 70%.

Vietnam and China also offer attractive - and cheaper - holiday alternatives.

In response, Japanese Airlines has cancelled some its routes.

Exacerbating the problem, Tourism Australia's controversial "Where the Bloody Hell Are You?" global marketing campaign was lost in translation in Japan.

Tourism chiefs are therefore relying on the pulling power of the Aussie "soapie" to arrest the slide.

Yoshino Kimura (May 2007)
Yoshino Kimura will be a key female character

The idea was the brainchild of Tourism Minister Fran Bailey, who came across a popular book featuring a group of young Japanese who found love in the unlikely setting of the Australian outback.

"They love their "soapies"," Fran Bailey told the BBC News website.

"So we're going to get these top Japanese soap stars and we're going to place them in the Australian environment. They'll have various adventures and meet up with some quirky and unusual Australian characters and get up to all sorts of fun."

Locations are set to include some of the country's most iconic landmarks, such as the Sydney Opera House, Uluru (formerly known as Ayer's Rock) and the Great Barrier Reef.

Crucially, lesser known sights will also feature, such as the spectacular Great Ocean Road on Victoria's west coast and the state's Healesville Sanctuary with its cast of 200 species of wildlife.

Australia, in all its majesty and beauty, will form the backdrop.

The soap opera will become, in effect, a 30-minute "infomercial", though planners also want it to have dramatic merit.

'Stunt' claims

Money for the project is expected to come out of Tourism Australia's A$190m marketing budget. But tourism chiefs hope the soap will quickly become commercially viable.

Kangaroo sign in front of Uluru, also known as Ayers rock (file photo)
Iconic landmarks such as Uluru, Ayers Rock, will feature

"There's already been huge interest," said Fran Bailey. "A few Japanese producers have already appointed someone to represent them, so there's fantastic interest."

She has also been in talks with the production company DHM Entertainment, which is co-owned by Australian actor Hugh Jackman.

Critics of the "soapie" idea have derided it as a stunt, and suggested that the tourism minister should stick to politics and not get involved in television production.

Labor opposition spokesman Martin Ferguson said the Japanese market was simply too important to leave to an afternoon soap opera.

"The problem is very real and requires a serious solution," he said.

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