MELBOURNE - The Australian government said on Sunday it will financially aid the country's tourism sector that's been badly hit by long-lasting bushfires, as Melbourne braced for downpours at the start of one of its greatest allures, the Australian Open.
Recent rains have brought the number of fires burning across Australia's east and south coast to under 100 for the first time in weeks, easing a disaster that has scorched an area roughly one-third the size of Germany.
The Australian government said on Sunday it will channel $76 million to the tourism industry.
Twenty-nine people have been killed in the fires while thousands of animals have also perished.
Fears of smoke from the fires disrupting the Australian Open receded in Melbourne where the year's first Grand Slam starts on Monday, but the city and parts of the bushfire-ravaged Victoria were bracing for heavy rains.
"Victoria is about to see its wettest 2-day period in many, many months," Dean Narramore from the state's Bureau of Meteorology said.
More than 780,000 fans attended the 2-week Australian Open last year, according to figures from the office of the state's premier, providing a major influx of cash for Victoria's economy.
Damages to the tourism industry from the bushfire disaster have approached A$1 billion so far and may go above A$4.5 billion by the end of the year, according to estimates from Australian tourism bodies.
The government said the aid announced on Sunday was "an initial push" to help the country's A$152 billion tourism industry, an increasingly vital part of Australia's economy, that accounts for more than 3 percent of annual economic output.
In a joint statement released with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the bushfires have dealt the biggest reputational blow to the Australian tourism industry that it has ever faced internationally.
"Tourism is the lifeblood of so many communities around Australia and it's absolutely critical that we help to get people back visiting those communities," Birmingham said.
Following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis:
* Birmingham said on Sunday that bookings from key international markets were down by between 30 percent and 40 percent, adding that one in 13 jobs depend on tourism or hospitality to some extent in Australia.
* Domestic reservation cancellations were down by nearly 70 percent, Australian media reported.
* About 80 percent of the Greater Blue Mountains that are on the World Heritage List of protected designations have been lost to the bushfires, Australian media reported. .
* There were 69 bushfires in New South Wales, nearly a third of them still yet to be contained, and 14 fires were burning in Victoria, with some big blazes in state's mountain region known for hiking.
* Intense storms and heavy rains were expected across Australia's east and south coast on Sunday and Monday, with meteorologists warning of heavy flash flooding in Victoria.
* The Southern Highlands in New South Wales re-opened to visitors after bushfires burnt through the region last year.