Flying by seaplane over the coral reefs and islands of the Whitsundays, witnessing one of Australia’s best views, is an experience you probably know – not personally, perhaps, but certainly through reputation.
Exactly where this takes you, of course, is your own choice. Possibly to a private pontoon, from where you can catch a submersible boat and go snorkeling. Or to the secluded Whitsunday Island, to enjoy Whitehaven Beach, Australia’s most photographed strip of sand, singled out as one of the world’s best by everyone from Frommers Travel to CNN.com.
There’s no surf, but clear blue waters on one side and almost untouched national park on the other. Or perhaps you can fly over the Heart Reef, choosing the moment to propose to your special one. The heart-shaped site is known to millions, some of whom must assume it is a Photoshop image. In truth, it is a natural marvel, 17 metres wide. The view from overhead, in all its reality, is indeed remarkable.
Whatever the details, a visit to the Great Barrier Reef is on everyone’s Australian bucket list, as the world’s largest coral reef continues to appear on international lists of natural wonders. However, the bucket list is where it has remained for many travellers, as it has faced many challenges. The global financial crisis kept international tourists away from Australia – and moreover, kept the Australian dollar high. The popular Panorama Tour of the Whitsundays costs $475 for four and a half hours; a night on Hamilton Island goes from $340 (for the budget option) to over a $1000.
In comparison, a holiday in Bali is terrific value. When the Aussie dollar outclassed the greenback, even a U.S. pilgrimage could be cheaper.
Then there were the Queensland floods of 2011. Most of the GBR hot spots were not directly affected by the floods, but as the news worldwide carried photos of flood-laden towns and (fallacious) reports of crocodiles swimming down the Brisbane streets, Queensland was looking like a less attractive holiday option. Despite a quick campaign from Queensland Tourism, ensuring that it was open for business, damage had been done.
Lately, the great challenge has been environmental concerns, especially with the Queensland and federal governments opening up the possibility of further mining projects, a proposal to dump toxic dredge inside the Reef’s World Heritage Area, and continuing reports of a fragile ecosystem, further threatened by climate change. While these concerns have some basis, snorkelling or scuba-diving amongst the coral near Cairns or the Whitsundays is still a beautiful, polychromatic experience, seemingly untroubled by ecological damage. Besides, the more tourists who visit, the more protection is likely.
But perhaps the Reef’s greatest tourism hurdle is that it just wasn’t as “cool” as in the 80s, when (as the ads told us) Queensland was “Beautiful one day, perfect the next”. Daydream Island, while still a popular family destination, still seems frozen in 1988. Other Whitsundays such as South Molle Island (next to Daydream) and Lindeman Island, formerly Australia’s sole Club Med, have closed, and even the prestigious Hayman Island has struggled.
Daydream Island, while still a popular family destination, still seems frozen in 1988
Further south, Great Keppel Island, previously one of Queensland’s go-to spots (as a campaign inspired scores of tourists to “Get wrecked on Great Keppel Island”), was closed for redevelopment in 2008. The renovations were delayed, and though it still had limited accommodation, it lay dormant, like a ghost resort.
New developments, however, suggest that the Reef is on the verge of a comeback. Some, including The New Daily, have criticised the $23 million, Byron Bay-style facelift of the backpackers’ party town of Airlie Beach, which faces the Whitsundays. Still, even we can agree with the laidback charm of the café scene, the aptly named “long lunch” at the Déjà vu Restaurant, and the exhaustive rum selection at the Fish D’vine seafood house.
Hayman Island will relaunch in July as One&Only Hayman Island, following a makeover by One&Only Resorts (a chain, oddly enough). Other Whitsundays, including Hayman, Hamilton, Dent and Long Islands, are also getting major facelifts. Lindeman Island was sold in 2012 to Chinese investors, who will eventually re-open it as a $200 million, five-star resort, focusing on the Chinese market. “This may just be the initiative that we all need to bring a rebirth of tourism to the region,” said Hamilton Island’s CEO Glenn Bourke when the revamp was announced last year.
Meanwhile on the Capricorn Coast, Great Keppel will be neglected no more, as a new $600 million resort will attempt to bring back the glory days.
Hopefully, the coral-speckled Reef will still be with us for a long while yet. For the time being, like other 1980s icons, the Great Barrier Reef might be cool once again.