Whitsundays beach war intensifies


Beach protest planned for Whitsundays island purchased by Chinese developer

A Chinese developer who purchased a pristine Aussie island tried to kick locals off a public beach. This is how they plan to take it back.

The war over a pristine piece of Australia’s paradise is intensifying this week as locals and their supporters plan to occupy a beach in the Whitsundays that a Chinese developer wants them banished from.

News.com.au wrote about Keswick Island, 30km from Mackay, earlier this week after it emerged wealthy developer China Bloom had closed beaches, parts of the national park and the airstrip and had banned short term accommodation and rentals.

The tiny island in the Coral Sea at the bottom of the Whitsundays is being controlled by the developer after it signed a 96-year lease for 117 hectares with plans to develop a tourist resort to accommodate 3000 people.

The small community that calls the 530 hectares of Keswick Island home has been banned from accessing large parts of public land, including the national park (which accounts for 400 hectares). The track to beautiful Basil Bay is blocked with rocks and “permit only” signs.

Locals fighting for their rights on Keswick Island. Picture: JewelZee

Locals fighting for their rights on Keswick Island.

“I’m gobsmacked that it’s happening in Australia,” local Julie Willis told news.com.au after she was given three days to evacuate a rental property she had lived in for five years.

Northern Beaches local Deb Lawson is capitalising on the media attention. She has planned a “peaceful protest” at Basil Bay, where the Queensland Government told news.com.au locals are not allowed to go “past the high tide line”.

Her protest, planned for Australia Day, will include “a flotilla of boats”.

“I thought, being a boating community (Mackay), what better way to do that than get a flotilla of boats, let’s get out to Keswick Island.”

“China Bloom don’t have ownership below the high tide mark,” she told 7 News. “So, technically, they can’t stop us getting on to the beach.”

The member for Whitsundays, Amanda Camm, told reporters this week: “This is not Communist China, this is Australia. This is Queensland and this is the Whitsundays.”

Paradise. Picture: Mark Fitz Photography


News.com.au approached Mackay Regional Council about the issue earlier this week. They refused to comment, instead handballing the issue to the Palaszczuk Government on the grounds that “the long-term lease is between them and China Bloom”.

A Queensland Government spokesman told news.com.au the developer is being urged to do the right thing.

“(We are) working with China Bloom to ensure all relevant activities are in accordance with the terms of the lease, particularly as China Bloom works to upgrade the island’s roads, boat ramps, jetties and marine infrastructure,” a Department of Resources spokesman said.

On the matter of public access being denied to Basil Bay, the government offered only this:

“In areas of Keswick Island where a lease is held adjacent to the beach, the public can access the beach up to where the tide goes up to (the high tide mark).”

Ms Willis says Airbnb operators were forced to cancel bookings, including those with international tourists who were a week away from arriving, after China Bloom decreed an end to short term accommodation.

China Bloom has erected signs around the island, locals say.

China Bloom has erected signs around the island, locals say.

“Suddenly we were letting international visitors know, ‘Sorry, you can’t come here.’”

Ms Willis says a husband and wife team who ran a block maintenance business were given seven days to wrap things up and a local who had flown his plane from Mackay to Keswick Island more than 1000 times was given 12 hours to get it off the island’s runway.

The airstrip closure means travel by boat is now the only way on and off the island. But even the jetty, provided by the previous head lease holder, was removed and never replaced.

Instead, locals must navigate a “much more dangerous” approach to a newly constructed, much smaller ramp.

It all amounts to an end to an incredible burden on what was once a “vibrant community”, she said.

“On the surface, it really looks like they don’t want the sublessees there. They have no responsibility to look after sublessees. It’s like they want it as a private island for Chinese tourists.



“It’s a struggle. We’ve tried to come to the table with China Bloom. We’ve been given assurances by the State Government that our concerns have been taken on board but we feel like we’re not being listened to.” She said part of the national park has been closed off, including an area that was known as a turtle nesting habitat. It comes after one of the island’s shorelines was excavated during turtle nesting season in 2019. The State Government took months to investigate and, despite photographs of environmental damage to the known turtle nesting habitat, found no evidence of wrongdoing. News.com.au approached China Bloom’s Australian agent for comment but they did not respond.
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