By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Forget Australia's mining boom. The nation's strong economy, high currency and wages have made it a magnet for sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Foreign sex workers, drug smugglers and global rock acts are all targeting Australia to cash in on an economy growing at 3.1 percent when other developed nations are struggling to expand at all.
The alternative boom has emerged as Australian average full-time wages hit $72,500 a year, and with the Australian dollar trading stubbornly above parity with the U.S. dollar for the past two years.
That has made Australia even more profitable for fly-in and fly-out rock acts and prostitutes, and especially for drug traffickers who are taking bigger risks with the hope of windfall profits.
"Offshore organized crime syndicates perceive Australia to have a robust economy and to have been less affected by the global financial crisis than other jurisdictions," said Paul Jevtovic, the Australian Crime Commission's executive director of intervention and prevention.
Australian police made 69,500 illicit drug busts in the year to June 30, 2012, the highest in a decade, and have made record arrests in the first six months of this financial year.
In recent months, police have intercepted drugs hidden in a 20-tonne steamroller and heavy machinery, in a large wooden altar, and they have broken up a drug ring involving smugglers in Australia, Japan and Vietnam.
One of the biggest smuggling operations was a failed bid to bring in more than 200 kg (440 lb) of cocaine across the Pacific Ocean from Ecuador on a 13-metre (40-foot) yacht, found grounded on a small atoll in Tonga with a dead crewman aboard.
Australian police, who work closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and authorities throughout Asia and the South Pacific, said the high prices paid in Australia and the strong dollar all helped make the country attractive for smugglers.
Crime statistics show why some are willing to risk up to 20 years in prison.
The Australian Crime Commission, which examines trends and works closely with police agencies, said heroin and MDMA, also known as ecstasy, sell for about eight times more in Australia than in Britain and the United States, though Australia is a much smaller market.
Crime Commission data given to Reuters shows a kilogram of cocaine is worth about $2,400 in Colombia, $12,500 in Mexico, and $33,000 in the United States.
The same kilogram of cocaine is worth $220,000 in Australia.
Once a remote destination for big rock acts, Australia has been flooded with talent over the past year and faces a steady stream of musicians, including heritage acts, in 2013.
The strong dollar has made Australia the ideal place to perform for musicians wanting to make money at a time when touring rather than album sales is the main driver of income, with many acts charging a premium in a cashed-up economy.
In the first half of 2013, Australia will see tours by Bruce Springsteen, Pink, Guns N'Roses, Ringo Starr, ZZ Top, Thin Lizzy, the Steve Miller Band, Deep Purple, Santana, Status Quo, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Carole King, Paul Simon and Kiss.
The high ticket prices have upset some fans, who question why an artist like Springsteen charges $220 for a premium ticket in Australia, when the same ticket to the same show in Connecticut in October cost $90.
"You can't tell me it costs more than double per head to stage a concert here in Australia," said music fan Robin Pash, who has just returned from the United States, where he saw Springsteen and a series of acts for what would be considered bargain prices.
Entertainment journalist Jonathon Moran, however, said the higher prices reflected the higher cost in Australia, although Australia's strong dollar did make it more attractive to perform downunder.
"More people want to come here, and Australian audiences are comparatively well off and can afford the tickets," Moran, from Sydney's Sunday Telegraph, told Reuters.
SEX AND THE BOOM
Sex workers are also cashing in on the boom, particularly in remote mining towns, where the world's oldest profession is the latest to adopt fly-in, fly-out work practices. And more overseas sex workers are heading for Australia.
A 2012 report for the government in the most populous state, New South Wales, found a marked rise in the number of female sex workers from Thailand, Korea and China since 2006, with 53 percent of sex workers from Asia and a further 13.5 percent from other non-English-speaking countries.
The report, by the University of New South Wales, found a median hourly rate of A$150 for sex services in Australia's largest city of Sydney, although sex workers can charge double that in remote mining towns full of cashed up men.
In the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie in the Western Australia state, the Red House brothel, which has operated since 1934, advertises services starting at A$300 an hour.
Proprietor Bruna Meyers said women in her establishment earned up to A$4,000 a week at a busy time, or about three times the average full-time Australian wage.
"The girls who come here are mainly from over east (eastern Australian states). They come in, sometimes for two or three weeks at a time. Some are just girls who are travelling around the world," Meyers told Reuters.
($1 = 0.9652 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Ron Popeski)