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CANBERRA (Reuters) - As Australia fights to head off recession, the national government on Thursday urged workers to take a holiday to help stimulate the economy.
The country's 11 million workers have hoarded about 121 million days of paid-leave entitlements which the government wants to unlock to help stimulate a tourism sector hard hit by the global downturn.
Australian Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson said tourism officials would hold meetings with major employer groups next week to kickstart a "No Leave, No Life" campaign.
Ferguson has set his eyes on the A$31 billion ($20 billion) of holiday pay owed to workers and is leading the push to force business to make sure employees take their accrued holidays, and to encourage Australians to holiday at home.
"It is good for business, good for employees and potentially good for our tourism industry as it faces some tough times because of the global financial crisis," Ferguson said.
The holiday campaign comes after official data found Australia's economy grew by just 0.1 percent in the September quarter, its slowest rate of growth in eight years as consumers pull back on spending.
Australia's tourism industry is worth about A$40 billion a year, or about 4 percent of gross domestic product, generating about 500,000 jobs. Tourists from overseas account for about 25 percent of the industry.
But the global downturn has led to a sharp decline in visitor numbers, particularly from key markets such as Japan and the United States, both now in recession, and from Britain.
The global slowdown has also prompted Australia's flag carrier Qantas to cut some flights from Japan to Australia's tropical northern tourist center of Cairns, and to put smaller planes on other flights.
Australian full-time workers are entitled to a minimum four weeks annual leave and 10 public holidays each year. But many don't take their full holidays for fear of losing their jobs or falling behind on work.
Tourism officials are banking on a new advertising campaign in 22 countries, on the back of the new film "Australia" starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, which urges tourists to escape the rat race at home and lose themselves in Australia.
But tourism companies want the government to do more to help restore domestic consumer confidence, get people to spend on holidays and overturn the gloomy outlook in holiday spots.
"It's pretty somber," said Kim Thomas, whose company can take more than 1,000 tourists a day to islands on the Great Barrier Reef off the northern Queensland state. Tourist numbers were down around 20 percent on a year ago.
"We expect our numbers from Japan to reduce by about 50 percent by mid December. Up until now, they have been our largest single international market. It will have a big impact."
$1=A$1.54 Editing by Valerie Lee