On Keswick Island, 30km from Mackay in the Whitsundays, life has changed dramatically.
Land-based access to sections of the national park have been “locked” or blocked with boulders; keep out signs have been erected along the foreshore.
The airstrip is no longer accessible and, worst of all according to locals, one of the island’s most majestic public beaches is off limits.
The picturesque playground in the Coral Sea is being controlled by a Chinese developer who has gone to ground after purchasing the 96-year lease for 117 hectares with plans to develop a tourist resort to accommodate 3000 people.
China Bloom, through Adelaide-based agent Greaton Holdings, took control of the largest lease on the subtropical island in 2019 after it was listed for sale at just under $20 million.
But 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).
Buggy access to the esplanade on beautiful Basil Bay is now off limits. The track is blocked with rocks and “permit only” signs.
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Basil Bay on Keswick Island, which has been taken away from locals by a new Chinese lease holder. Picture: Salty SummitsSource:Supplied
The island paradise sits at the southern end of the Whitsundays and has a population of roughly 100 people. Picture: Mark FitzSource:Supplied
And there’s been little to no help from authorities.
News.com.au approached Mackay Regional Council which refused to comment. They handballed 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).”
Julie Willis had lived on Keswick Island for six years in rental accommodation before being given three days to vacate by China Bloom because the head lessee decreed temporary accommodation was no longer allowed.
“I’m gobsmacked that it’s happening in Australia,” she told news.com.au. “We were told there were no long-term rentals allowed.”
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The main lease for Keswick Island was sold to a Chinese developer in 2018.Source:Supplied
That meant Airbnb operators had to cancel bookings, including those with international tourists who were a week away from arriving.
“Suddenly we were letting international visitors know, ‘Sorry, you can’t come here.’”
It got worse. A husband and wife team who ran a block maintenance business was 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 that was built by Greaton, Ms Willis said.
It all amounts to an end to an incredible burden on what was once a “vibrant community”, she said.
“When we arrived on Keswick it was a vibrant community. There were maybe 15-18 people. A guesthouse, a kiosk, holiday rental homes and a commercial business running a block clearing.”
She said what is happening now is “like a social experiment to see how far things can be pushed in Australia”.
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Beautiful Basil Bay.Source:Supplied
Locals are fighting the Chinese lessees of this island. Picture: Mark Fitz PhotographySource:Supplied
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“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. The Adelaide office referred us to the Sydney office where a staff member promised to return our calls but that never happened.
China Bloom has also failed to engage with locals despite numerous attempts for a sit-down meeting to discuss concerns about the island’s direction and the freedom of locals and visitors.
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