Queensland island resort successes and failures, can a sustainable future save those sitting idle?

Stepping directly off the beach and into the ocean surrounded by an abundance of marine life is an experience that’s unique to just a couple of rare spots on the Greater Barrier Reef.

But in the Capricorn Cays, you won’t find mega resorts or giant casinos.

Instead, on Heron Island and Wilson Island, visitors stay in sustainable accommodation nestled into the natural environment.

It’s this that has helped them thrive where others have failed, according to the islands’ general manager Rena Scott.

“You’re not coming here for a five-star environment with regards to your room,” she said.

“You’re more coming for the five-star environment for the natural marine life and the island itself.

“You can just walk off both beaches on Heron Island, Wilson Island, [and you’re] there snorkelling with turtles, with manta rays, with stingrays — [it’s] Basically Finding Nemo.”

A resort manager says small-scale sustainable developments are proving successful.(Supplied: Wilson Island)

Once desirable luxury holiday spots, many of Queensland’s island resorts are now deserted and derelict.

From failed visions of lavish destinations boasting marinas and casinos to cyclone damage so destructive redevelopment was abandoned, island resorts have been a source of heartache for the state’s tourism sector.

It has prompted the Queensland government to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the economic and regulatory frameworks for island resorts with the hope it will shed light on potential solutions.

Queensland Tourism and Industry Council chief executive Brett Fraser said it was a step in the right direction.

“I really hope that the outcome of this inquiry is that government can identify where those really critical issues are of overlapping red tape, and that they can streamline some of those and find better ways across departments to come together and help operators to navigate those processes ,” Mr. Fraser said.

An aerial shot looking to the ocean off the cyclone damaged South Molle Island in April, 2018.
South Molle Island was severely damaged by Cyclone Debbie in 2017.(ABC News)

Sustainable, small scale and locally owned

Ms Scott said the government should look no further than Heron and Wilson Islands as sustainable success stories.

Guest numbers are limited, both are powered by solar renewable energy, have strict compost and recycling programs, and run a desalination plant to turn salt water into drinking water.

A beach cabin with a hammock in front of it is surrounded by trees.
There are nine reef cabins on Wilson Island and only 18 guests can stay at any one time.(Supplied: Wilson Island)

“We don’t want to overtake … what was already here and be the star because we want the islands to be the star in the environment,” Ms Scott said.

“What we want to create here … is if the rest of the world falls over, we’re OK. So, it’s just making sure that we do have a truly sustainable environment.”

The Whitsundays in north Queensland boasts its own success stories, with Hamilton Island considered its crowning jewel.

Whitsunday Conservation Council president Jacquie Shiels said she had seen the rise and fall of resorts due to natural disasters during her almost 30 years in the cyclone-prone region.

Hamilton Island is one of the few that has repeatedly resurrected itself, thanks to Australian ownership and its unique position as an events destination.

A blue plunge pool looks out to the ocean on a sunny day.  There are loungers positioned around the pool.
One of the pools at Qualia Resort on Hamilton Island.(Supplied: Qualia Great Barrier Reef)

“It has Australian owners who know their product and their market well and has made connections with the local community,” Ms Shiels said.

“They care about how things are managed.

“Part of Hamilton Island’s success has to be attributed to canny management and a high profile, enhanced by the major events and its striking appearance.”

Pitfalls of paradise

There are dozens of failed island resorts scattered down the Queensland coast.

Woppa-Great Keppel Island is a prime example.

Known in the 1980s for its ‘get wrecked’ campaign, its main resort closed in 2008 and multiple attempts to reopen it have failed.

An aerial shot of a beach with white sand and blue water, a large ferry sits on the shore.
Great Keppel Island has accommodation and camping options.(ABC News)

In 2012, Tower Holdings had a master plan for a $600 million development complete with golf courses, shops, accommodation, a casino, and a marina.

But after numerous run-ins with the Queensland government over casino licenses and deadline lapses, that never eventuated.

Tower Holdings then demolished part of the decaying resort in 2018 and put it on the market.

An old building with blue mesh fencing around it and trees
Parts of the old resort still remain on Great Keppel Island.(ABC Capricornia: Katrina Beavan)

Fortunes looked to have finally turned when Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting announced its interest in building a world-class beach club.

But it went nowhere and had many questioning if Australia’s richest person couldn’t develop on Great Keppel Island, who could?

In Far North Queensland, locals are hoping Dunk Island off Mission Beach will finally be resurrected after Annie Cannon-Brookes, wife of tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, struck a deal in July to buy the resort, which was destroyed by Cyclone Yasi in 2011 .

In a statement, selling agents JLL Hotels and Hospitality Group said the island’s new owners were assessing plans to develop the island.

Damaged two-storey units on the edge of a sandy beach.
Units at Dunk Island Resort were damaged by Cyclone Yasi in 2011.(ABC News: Tom Orr)

Further south off the coast of Mackay lies another abandoned resort on a national park island.

In its heyday, Brampton Island was popular among honeymooners.

But after the original owners closed the resort, it was taken over by a number of large companies and finally sold to the owners of Choice Petroleum in 2011.

It was closed for “redevelopment” and has been decaying ever since.

A dated photo of a beach with trees and plants
Brampton Island in the 1970s was a popular tourist destination.(Supplied: Lance Cheswick)

What will the future look like?

The parliamentary inquiry committee will assess issues such as leasing and ownership models, governance responsibilities, and development approvals in an attempt to resurrect the island fortunes as resorts rot away.

In the Whitsunday Conservation Council’s submission to the inquiry, Ms Shiels wrote that climate change would play a big role as weather events became more extreme.

She said it was crucial future developments were built for “worst-case scenarios”.

“The more remote it is, the more difficult it is to service, the more expensive it is to run, and the harder it is to fix when it all goes wrong,” she said.

“They need to have their own cyclone shelters and their own arrangements because, otherwise, when the cyclone hits, they’re not ready.”

Damaged two-storey units sit at the edge of a sandy beach
The resort at Dunk Island has been decaying for more than a decade.(ABC News: Tom Orr)

Mr Fraser said sustainability needed to be a focus but the market could still offer a high-end product within that.

“We do still need a balance of those types of products in the luxury, higher-end product as well because there are very different markets out there,” he said.

Ms Shiels said absentee ownership was one of the biggest problems with failed island resorts.

“You have big hotel companies running these resorts from far away,” Ms Shiels said.

“They don’t know the local area, they don’t really have a great deal of interest in it either.

“The management changes every few years, nobody reinvests in the infrastructure … and then it’s very vulnerable to breaking down.”

Foreign ownership, however, is not included in the committee’s terms of reference.

An oval shaped island with white sand beaches, greenery and coral reefs surrounding.
Heron Island’s managers say they have taken a sustainable approach to tourism.(Supplied: Mark Fitz)

Mr Fraser said island resorts off Queensland’s coast played a critical role in attracting new and returning visitors to the state.

But he said they had unique challenges when it came to investing, building, and operating.

“Developing tourism infrastructure is challenging, there’s a lot of environmental regulations and other planning regulations that investors and operators need to need to manage,” Mr Fraser said.

The parliamentary inquiry will hold regional public hearings next week and its report is due to be tabled by December 5.


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