Keswick Island, part of the iconic Whitsunday Island Group, is one of Australia’s most pristine and scenic tourist attractions. Whether it will remain so or not depends on the actions of a Chinese-based developer, China Bloom. This developer, who has acquired leasing rights there, is trying to stop locals from setting foot on the public beach, which is part of the island. This is causing local consternation and the Australian authorities have been called upon by the islanders to intervene.
Keswick Island is just 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) from Mackay City on the east coast of Australia. It is nestled inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and is known for its spectacular beauty. Visitors can enjoy amenities ranging from swimming, snorkeling, and diving to fishing, beach combing, and bush walking.
The colorful coral reefs, along with the abundant marine life, provide favorable conditions for diving and snorkeling. Three shipwreck diving sites, including the historic Singapore and the Llewellyn, are accessible from the island in just a few minutes by boat. As a national parkland, Keswick Island is protected. The land has particularly rich biodiversity mainly due to its evergreen forests.
The subtropical climate on the island makes it ideal for all-season tourism. The waters of Keswick abound with dolphins, tropical fish, and manta rays. Giant humpback whales start their migration past the island during the months from July to September. Whale watching is popular among tourists in this season.
China Bloom, a developer based in Hong-Kong, quietly acquired the head lease for 96 years in 2019 for about US$20 million. The lease holding area of the company is about 20 percent of the island. Once the lease was acquired, China Bloom soon closed off beach access to the natives by building fences. There used to be a tree growing there that was decorated every year during Christmas time; it was a local tradition going back 12 years. The company cut down that tree.
All this disruption created widespread outrage and worry among the public, and they asked the government to intervene on the issues. In reply to the local claims, China Bloom alleges that the locals are “anti-development” and are “actively working to undermine progress.”
After banning short-term accommodation and rentals, the developer says it is working to build houses, a hotel, a new boat ramp and jetty, and that the previous island management failed to manage operations to the standard required. “The story of the Christmas tree is also fabricated,” the company said to news.com.au.
China Bloom also denied the claim of them destroying turtle nests on the beach during excavation. They denied that there ever were turtle nests on the island for the past decade or so.
Public reactions heating up
Rayna Asbury, a member of the Keswick Island Progress Association, who has been staying on the island since 2005, said to A Current Affair that around 40 turtle nests were located earlier this year on Connie Bay, located at the far north end of Keswick Island. This was in early 2020.
She accused the Chinese firm of banning boats from accessing the public ramp and shutting down the airstrip. The locals who live on the island are getting increasingly frustrated and claiming that access and facilities on the island are maintained exclusively for rich Chinese tourists.
Locals seek government action
Amanda Camm, the member for the Whitsundays, wrote a letter to the Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, The Hon. Dr. Anthony Lynham, about the need for government intervention.
Julieanne Gilbert MP, Labor member for Mackay in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, said to ABC that action was being taken since the company was found guilty of breaching the conditions of the lease.
The authorities have since directed the company to remove “Keep Out” signs. The government also plans to send in officials to meet with the residents and investigate issues further. The islanders remain worried for their own future and for the future of their island paradise.