Until 2008, Australia welcomed more visitors than it saw leave. But not any more, writes Elaine Moore.

A strong Australian dollar has made foreign adventures even more appealing for Australians: in 2010 outbound travel grew by 15 per cent, according to the government. It is predicted to keep growing by 4.5 per cent every year between now and 2020 as Australians continue to enjoy a healthy economy.

There has been a rise in the number of permanent departures from the country, too, up by 6.5 per cent in 2009-10, but their destinations have begun to shift.

Most permanent departees are still heading for the UK or New Zealand, where there are traditionally strong cultural and familial ties. But interest has been piqued by the close connection forged between Asian and Australian fortunes and there has been an increase in two-way traffic between the likes of Hong Kong, South Korea and India.

Michael Brown is a 28-year-old technical engineer who recently returned to his native city of Melbourne after a year spent in Cambodia working for Engineers without Borders: “It’s a rite of passage for young Australians to spend from six months to two or three years travelling and working abroad,” he says.

“A lot of young people work in bars in Europe or ski resorts in the US but the number of Australians I met in Phnom Penh was proof that there are plenty of other paths people take now. One friend has gone out and set up a direct marketing business in Shanghai. Another has opened the first gourmet chocolate shop in India.”

On coming back to Australia, Mr Brown hasn’t noticed a particular rise in the number of foreigners looking for employment in Australia, but says there has always been a relatively high number of skilled expatriates employed in his field. Since graduating in 2005 he has worked with engineers from the UK, Germany, India, China, Singapore and Canada. Most, he says, seemed attracted to the lifestyle.

Australia still ranks as one of the most attractive work destinations in the world. Although the cost of living is not cheap in Australian cities, the national currency’s buying power makes an Australian income attractive.

Yet in spite of the attractions, net immigration has fallen from a high of 298,900 in 2008-09. The Australian government announced the number of skilled visas for 2010-11 will be 113,850.

Sue Turk, general manager of operations for Rubicor Group, one of the largest recruitment agencies in Australia, explains that the financial crisis led many people to be cautious about moving countries.

But the main cause has been a reorganisation of the Australian migration programme, which led to a cut in the number of foreign students studying in the country by more than half, and cuts in family and general-skills visas in favour of business skills and employer-sponsored placements.

The UK still makes up the largest group of foreigners seeking to live and work in Australia and, according to UK headhunters, the lure of Australia’s economy resulted in a 50 per cent rise in the number of financial services professionals moving from the City of London to Sydney and Melbourne in 2010 compared with two years earlier.

At the same time, the number of Chinese and Indian nationals applying for visas has increased significantly, and the number of Americans reported to be working on long-term visas in Australia has risen by 80 per cent over the past five years.

Ruairi Flynn, managing director of recruitment firm Accountability, moved to Sydney from his home town of Dublin, Ireland, in 2003 with his Australian wife when their first child was born. Opportunities in Australia for those with relevant experience in his field are good, and there is even an advantage to having experience of a market such as Ireland’s, where competition is fierce, he says, adding: “I am not tempted in the least bit to go back home for good.”

Australians say they can understand why. Sam Morrison, 25, left his home town of Newcastle, New South Wales, to spend a year working in London’s bars before returning to Australia in 2007.

He now works for the Australian Defence Force and says there was never any danger of him leaving permanently: “Most of us who travel come home eventually, and there’s a lot who can’t understand why anyone would want to leave,” he says.

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