On the paradise isles dotted inside the Great Barrier Reef are scenes of total devastation. Abandoned resorts lie rotting in the sun as they are reclaimed by nature.
At least half of Queensland’s island resorts have shut their doors in recent years after a dual battering from cyclones and competition from overseas alternatives, allowing vandals and squatters to move in.
Now possibly their last hope of salvation has been extinguished after Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart this week unexpectedly pulled the plug on her $2billion plans to revive Great Keppel Island.
South Molle Island (pictured) was at its height in 60s and 70s as a raved about holiday destination but is now covered with collapsed structures, broken glass and scattered wood panels
Debris litters what was once a prime tourist dream trip destination on Great Keppel Island
A resort swimming pool on Great Keppel Island is full of stagnant water and used as a drinking hole by feral goats
Great Keppel Island is a far cry from its glory days with resort grounds overgrown and buildings poorly maintained
Great Keppel Island is returning to nature with resorts strewn with debris and slowly being overgrown by tropical plant life
A once-fancy hotel lobby on Great Keppel island lies in ruins with broken glass wall panels and rubble covering the dirty carpet
It was hoped the ambitious proposal would have rescued not just Keppel but the entire industry and been a catalyst to renovate and rejuvenate the rest of the region.
Instead, the picturesque once-hotspots – which include famous names like Dunk Island, South Molle and Lindeman Island – will again be left to decay and destruction.
Queensland’s tourist slogan of ‘Beautiful one day, perfect the next…’ has been overshadowed by the ironic Keppel Island advert: ‘Get wrecked on Keppel.’
Now locals say it’s time to call it quits, and have told the state government to clean up the mess, give up on the industry and let the islands become wilderness havens.
Queensland’s tourist slogan of ‘Beautiful one day, perfect the next…’ has been overshadowed by the now ironic Great Keppel Island advert: ‘Get wrecked on Keppel’
Dunk Island (pictured), once known as a lavish tourist hub, was also badly affected by Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Cyclone Yasi in 2011
‘Dilapidated and abandoned island resorts should be removed, not renovated,’ island resident Elmer Ten-Haken told a Queensland state inquiry into the crisis.
‘The demand from tourists is changing, Late 20th century tourists expect so much more.
‘High standard accommodation, gourmet meals, air-conditioning and Hollywood showers – all of which is incredibly difficult and expensive to provide on an island.’
He said the resorts tried to overcome the logistical problems of running remote island hotels by large-scale developments which relied on high tourist numbers.
‘That model worked for a while,’ said Mr Ten-Haken, a former Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger.
‘The new resorts did attract large numbers of visitors when they were new and fashionable, but there were many problems involved in running them.
‘Most of the big island resorts were a long way from anywhere and, despite the flat calm seas depicted in each and every resort brochure, the reality is quite different.
Great Keppel Island, located off the central Queensland coast, was once a popular tourist destination but has been left partially demolished for over 10 years now (pictured)
It’s far cry from the tourist ad image of the Whitsundays
‘The sea passages to and from these resorts are notoriously unpleasant during bad weather, which is much more frequent than expected when the southeasterly trade winds blow.
‘The Queensland coast is susceptible to severe cyclones. When these pass over, they trash island resorts which are usually right down on the beach and open to storm surge as well as destructive winds.
‘And the cost and logistical difficulties of providing the year-round high standard of guest service which today’s tourist wants is simply prohibitive this far away from the mainland hubs.’
He said the costs involved in trying to meet these expectations is now so high only top-end resorts for the super-rich, like $1,500 a night Hayman Island, are viable.
Niche resorts on islands close to the mainland may also survive, while Hamilton Island’s long runway is key to its success – but tourists numbers there are also said to be dwindling.
The bleached and dying coral in the lagoons within the Great Barrier Reef – closest to the resorts – are no longer a tourist attraction, he said – and the cost of boat trips or seaplanes to the more spectacular outer reefs can be too much for many.
The costs involved in trying to meet modern tourist expectations is now so high only top-end resorts for the super-rich, like $1500 a night Hayman Island, are viable
The environmental impact of large scale resorts is also a turn-off for the new generation of eco-friendly travellers, he said.
‘Now we have a whole lot of islands with ruined and abandoned resorts on them,’ said Mr Ten-Haken.
‘The expense, difficulty and discomfort of getting guests, staff and supplies to these islands, the limited experiences which they provided, plus the privations of mother nature and the changing expectations of visitors killed off many of the big resorts.
‘Many of the abandoned resort island leases have been sold and now belong to shadowy entities which have occasionally mooted big plans to rejuvenate them.
‘But the reality is that the cost of rejuvenation and operation to modern standards is too high and demand for such resorts no longer exists, so nothing has happened.’
Club Med’s resort on Lindeman Island (pictured) has been left in its ruins for nearly a decade after Cyclone Yasi tore through the vacation area in 2011
For a moment, it looked like Western Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart might just be the ideal person to buck the trend.
For a moment, it looked like Western Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart might just be the person to buck the trend
Her company Hancock Prospecting appeared to be closing in on a massive plan to regenerate the Great Keppel Island resort which closed in 2008.
Other developers had previously announced ambitious plans for the island which never came to anything, but the billionaire’s deep pockets gave serious hope for the project.
Hancock announced plans last year for a ‘world-class, year-round beach club, sandy bars and shopping’ in time for the Olympic Games in Brisbane in 2032.
Ms Rinehart was set to pay $50million to buy the lease for the 970 hectare site and build a 250-room beachfront hotel, 300 luxury apartments, 285 luxury villas, 9,000sqm of retail shops and a 250-berth marina.
The plan would also extend the airstrip runway from its current 800m to allow larger planes to land and take-off.
She hoped to turn the marina into a millionaire’s playground like Puerto Banus in Spain with headline features like an underwater bar to bring in visitors.
The plan promised to inject $2billion into the local economy and create 1,500 new jobs with spin-off benefits expected throughout the region and renewed interest in the islands.
‘Currently, for various reasons, Great Keppel is not a showcase for Queensland,’ the company said as they announced the project.
Gina Rinehart hoped to turn the marina into a millionaire’s playground like Puerto Banus (pictured) in Spain with headline features like an underwater bar to bring in visitors
Several development plans for Great Keppel Island have been proposed over the years to bring back its former glory
‘We wish to maintain and improve its natural beauty and tourist facilities for Queenslanders and others to enjoy for generations to come.
‘Gina Rinehart is very passionate about Australia and Queensland and hopes that her vision is shared by the Queensland community.
‘She is excited to bring the best of what she has experienced overseas to Great Keppel Island, and is excited to be able to share that with Queensland and all Australians.’
The plan appeared to have the backing of the state government who said in March they were working ‘very closely’ with Hancock to make it happen.
Gina Rinehart’s plan appeared to have the backing of the state government who said in March they were working ‘very closely’ with Hancock to make it happen
But on Wednesday, the company confirmed it had unexpectedly pulled out of the deal.
‘A significant amount of work has now been completed as part of an extensive review process for the project,’ the company said in a short statement.
‘However, based on the outcome of that process, [the company] has decided that unfortunately, it cannot proceed with the project.’
Local state MP Amanda Camm hopes the state government’s inquiry into the future of the Whitsunday resorts will come up with answers to the ongoing problem.
But she admitted Gina Rinehart’s decision to pull out was damning.
‘There’s clearly an issue if someone of Ms Rinehart’s calibre can’t make it stack up commercially,’ she said.
‘It’s really important that we get to the bottom of why this happens. It’s a real lost opportunity.’
Cyclone Dylan also wreaked havoc on Great Keppel Island, which destroyed houses and washed away debris (pictured)
TIMELINE OF DESTRUCTION
1995 – Laguna Quays overlooking Whitsundays goes bust
2008 – Great Keppel Island resort hosts its last guest
2010 – Hinchinbrook Island left to rot
2010 – Brampton Island closes its doors to tourists
2011 – Dunk Island wrecked by Cyclone Yasi
2011 – Lindeman Island also killed off by Cyclone Yasi
2012 – Revived Laguna Quays closes
2016 – Capricorn Resort in Yeppoon abandoned
2017 – South Molle Island resort destroyed by Cyclone Debbie
2017 – Happy Bay Long Island also wrecked and closed by Cyclone Debbie
2019 – Keswick Island is sold to property developer China Bloom which erects Keep Out signs and locks out locals from the National Park, boat ramps and airstrip on the isle
In the meantime, the region’s abandoned resorts once renowned for dream trips will now remain simply shattered dreams.
In the 1960s and 1970s, South Molle Island was a hugely popular holiday destination, but is now covered with collapsed structures.
Whitsunsdays resident and skipper Dan Van Blarcom describes the dilapidated spaces as a ‘crack house’.
A Chinese company bought the island shortly after Cyclone Debbie wiped it out in 2017, but never fixed the damage.
‘There are people who would have wonderful memories of South Molle resort and the other Whitsunday islands,’ Mr Van Blarcom said.
‘They’re going, ”Oh, we went on our honeymoon there, we took our kids there” and to see this is terrible.’
Club Med’s resort on Lindeman Island has been left in its ruins for over a decade after Cyclone Yasi tore through it in 2011.
Tourists once flocked to the island hub to watch shows at the bar, which remains unrestored and abandoned.
Both destinations have been left to decay with piles of debris such as broken furniture and dark, murky swimming pools.
Dunk Island, once known as a lavish tourist hub, was also badly affected by Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Cyclone Yasi in 2011.
The Cairns island was once one of the main drivers of the Mission Bay economy but remains closed.
Hamilton Island remains as one of the very few resorts which have been repaired, following damage from cyclones.
Chief executive Glen Bourke said Australia ‘needs to be competitive’ against the cheap, exotic holidays to Bali or Fiji, which offer luxury five-star trips for a fraction of the price of a domestic holiday.
Others point to the impact of Covid on the tourism industry in Queensland, although the closed resorts all shut their doors long before the pandemic began in 2020.
But other locals simply believe the graffiti writing is on the wall for the dilapidated rundown, ramshackle remains of Queensland’s derelict island resorts.
‘These detract from the “unspoilt wilderness” image which tourist operators like to convey,’ said Mr Ten-Haken.
‘And they are an ongoing problem because, as they collapse, the materials in them become refuse which needs to be removed from the island.
‘Some of the older structures will contain asbestos with all the difficulties which that material causes.
The Whitsundays appeal to tourists has diminished since its heyday in the 70s, 80s and 90s
‘Unfortunately, these resorts were all built with no consideration of their end of life costs.
‘The taxpayer will have to pay for the structures to be dismantled and shipped off the islands and for the land to be revegetated so it can revert to National Park like the rest of the island.’
He added: ‘This will be a significant cost – but it will solve the problem once and for all.’
The state government’s inquiry into the future of Queensland’s island resorts is expected to publish its report in August.