Although it’s the world’s smallest continent, Australia is a big destination for foreign travelers. The world’s sixth largest country, Australia boasts a technologically advanced, multi-cultural society, and is famous for its natural beauty and distinctive wildlife.
First settled by the ancestors of todays aboriginal Australians almost 50,000 years ago, Australia had long been known to Indonesian traders when it was first discovered by Europeans in 1606. Dutch and British explorers, including Willem Janszoon and James Cook, mapped the new continent’s coastline over the next 200 years, and in 1770 Great Britain colonized New South Wales, establishing a settlement at Port Jackson in 1788. Although popularly remembered for its penal colonies, free settlers actually outnumbered prisoners in Australia; the colonies attracted large numbers of immigrants, particularly during the gold rush of the 1850s. A total of six colonies were established on Australia, which gradually instituted self-governance, and became a federal Commonwealth in 1901. During the 20th century, Australia saw increasing independence from British rule, culminating in the Australia Acts of 1985 and 1986, and implemented measures to promote and liberalize immigration.
Now an independent Commonwealth nation, Australia is a leading global economy with high rankings in several measures of national performance, coming in third in the UN’s 2007 Human Development Index and first in the 2008 Legatum Prosperity Index. Exports are driven by agriculture and natural resources, while services are the largest contributor to overall GDP. Australia is one of the most unique travel destinations in the world; around four million tourists arrive annually, drawn to environments ranging from the austere beauty of the Outback to the major cultural centers of Sydney and Melbourne. Beaches are plentiful, many of them popular among surfers. Due to its geologic age and geographic isolation, Australia is home to a huge number of endemic species. For many tourists, the chance to see one-of-a-kind animals like the koala and kangaroo in their natural habitat is alone reason enough to visit.
Despite ongoing debate about its social and ecological effects, Australia’s immigration rate is growing, a fact which is attributable to excellent economic and living conditions. While the British Isles have historically been the source of most Australian immigrants, and remain so today, a growing population of emigrants from Asia and elsewhere in Europe are present as well. Australia has a unique working holiday visa program, available to citizens of certain countries, allowing individuals aged 18-30 to remain in the country for 12 months with limited employment opportunities; this is an excellent way to fund an extended vacation or backpacking trip. Additionally, there are numerous volunteer opportunities in Australia, many centering on environmental preservation and restoration.
English in Australia is mostly based on the British model. The local accent may prove somewhat difficult for North American English speakers, but there is relatively little dialectical variation, except in isolated rural areas. There are many minority and indigenous languages, but outside of their respective communities, bilingualism is relatively uncommon.