By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Sports fans heading for the Sidney Olympics has sent Irish applications for year-long Australian "backpack" visas soaring to record levels.
The Australian embassy in Dublin has already granted 9,439 work-holiday visas to end of April.
There are thousands more applications in the pipeline for the 1999-00 period, which ends June 30.
"There has been a huge demand. We are going hell for leather," an embassy spokeswomen said.
A year of sun, surf and "cultural exchange" in Australia has become hugely popular.
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Globally, the application rate is far higher than anywhere else as young people turn their backs on the attractions of the Celtic Tiger for a year off in the second most "Irish" country in the world.
There are more people of Irish descent per capita in Australia than in America, with an estimated 7 million of Australia’s 17.5 million population having Irish connections.
Irish visa applications have soared more than tenfold from only 939 in 1991-92. In the past, when Ireland exceeded its quota, extra visas were switched from other European countries where numbers were not taken up.
The embassy says no cap has been set on numbers this year and there has been a relaxation for older applicants.
The work-holiday visas are open to 18- to 30-year-olds. Applicants have to show they have funds of £2,500. They are only allowed to work for any one Australian employer for a maximum of three months and can only stay a year in the country.
In previous years, those aged 25-30 faced an extra hurdle of proving their trip would be of "benefit to Australia," but this stipulation has now been dropped.
For those over 30, there are holiday visas, work visas for those sponsored for temporary residence by an Australian employer, and the permanent residency visa program.
Most of those traveling from Ireland are young people who have completed their studies and are anxious to travel abroad before taking up a career.
The Irish are popular with the Australian immigration department because of their good record in not getting into trouble or overstaying their visas.