Oprah Winfrey Fever Hits Australia

It all started in September, when Oprah Winfrey declared to a studio audience of screaming fans “We’re going to Australiaaaaaa!” It was a stellar coup for Tourism Australia; for an outlay of around $5 million, they were guaranteed untold publicity as the Queen of U.S. talk television signed off on her 25-year-old show by taking it on the road through Australia.

If there were any doubts about the value of an Oprah endorsement, look no further than Sidney Poitier or Barack Obama. In the three months to January 2007, Sidney Poitier’s autobiography, "The Measure of a Man", had sold just 500 copies. Three months after an endorsement from Oprah, sales were up towards 1 million. In the lead up to the U.S. Democratic nominations, two economists studied the impact of Oprah’s endorsement for Barack Obama. They found Oprah’s tick of approval was worth an additional 1 million votes. Tourism Australia will be hoping Oprah’s latest plug will reap similar rewards.

The Australian government is doing everything in its power to make this happen, rolling out the red carpet and granting Oprah nothing short of presidential status. Sections of Sydney’s Central Business District have been shut down for the filming of her shows. There are bus diversions and a special maritime exclusion zone around the Opera House. Oprah even has a police escort to make sure she doesn’t get stuck in one Sydney’s traffic jams, while a big red O has been emblazoned across the Harbour Bridge.

It’s not just Sydney bending over backwards to woo the world’s richest woman. Just about every town in the country has gone out of its way to attract the Oprah juggernaut. In Melbourne, thousands of fans including Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Victoria’s recently-elected Premier Ted Baillieu turned up to see Oprah’s only public appearance in Federation Square. Even Oprah seemed a little overwhelmed by the reception, telling the crowd, "I have to say, I have not seen a welcome like this in my whole life."

Oprah Winfrey speaks on stage during the first taping of the "Oprah Winfrey Show" at the Sydney Opera House on December 14, 2010 in Sydney, Australia.
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Oprah Winfrey speaks on stage during the first taping of the "Oprah Winfrey Show" at the Sydney Opera House on December 14, 2010 in Sydney, Australia.

Neither has Australia, it seems. Sydney's Bondi Beach ground to a halt on the weekend as Oprah dined at the famous Icebergs restaurant. The site of her private jet refueling in Cairns also attracted gushes from a small crowd of hardcore fans.

Around 350,000 people in Australia (or roughly 8 percent of the population) applied for tickets to her shows, but only 6,000 were lucky enough to get one. The audience will hear from from Australia’s biggest names like Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban and Olivia Newton John. Bon Jovi and Jay-Z are also set to perform, while there’s a chance U2 may pop by for a surprise appearance.

It is estimated Oprah’s trip to Australia has already generated tens of million of dollars worth of publicity and the shows haven’t even been on air. When they do, they will be seen by 40 million people in the U.S. and syndicated to 140 networks around the world — enough to warm the hearts of tourism operators right around the country. Tourism Australia’s managing director, Andrew McEvoy, told CNBC he expects the benefits to last for years.

“I think it’s the personal connection she brings. It’s her audience too, they’re 25-to-54 year old women, with above average income, and in our world, they are the travel decision makers. It’s a real coup for Australia. It’s a real coup for the tourism industry,” McEvoy said.

And that’s exactly what Australia needs right now. The country may have lost the bid to host the World Cup in 2022 and the campaign to regain The Ashes is going down the drain, but all that seems to be forgotten when the Big O is in town.