On the largest island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, $60 billion of liquefied natural gas terminals are helping feed China’s hunger for energy. The next major construction project may appeal to its tourists.
Four decades after his father bought a cattle property on Curtis Island, American businessman Tim Reigel is seeking government approval to turn it into a five-star holiday destination. It’s the latest chapter for the 30-by-15-mile strip, located beside the famous coral reef, which state authorities predict will become one of the world’s largest LNG hubs.
The gas-to-guests transition is a microcosm of the economic shift happening in Australia. The nation, at the tail end of the biggest resources boom since the 1850s Gold Rush, is counting on tourists, especially from China, to help soften a plunge in mining and energy investments. These days, the majority of people coming to the tropical isle are there to help build the LNG facilities, not for the pristine beaches or endangered dugongs and snubfin dolphins. Once the projects are completed, most of those workers will leave.
“LNG is a tiny part of the Curtis Island story,” Reigel said by phone from his Los Angeles home. “I don’t care how many billions they’ve spent on it. Most of the island experience is very divorced from that.”
The three LNG projects on the island, about twice as big as Martha’s Vineyard, occupy about 2 percent of the land area on its southwestern tip, a couple of miles from the central Queensland port town of Gladstone.
The island’s workforce has already halved from a peak of 14,500 people last year and will drop to a “very small number” next year, according to contractor Bechtel Group Inc. The last project, a ConocoPhillips-Origin Energy Ltd. venture, is due to start production this month.
The exodus is hurting local businesses, such as Scotties restaurant, two blocks from the harbor, which once counted among its clientele directors of BG Group Plc, operator of the $20 billion Queensland Curtis LNG plant.
“I had three fantastic years, like everyone else, when all the big guys were coming to town — the engineers, the executives,” owner Scott McCarthy said. “Now, it’s been going downhill at a rapid pace. What we need is another big project to be announced, but with the commodity markets being as low as they are, that’s probably not about to happen.”
Fresh sources of income are needed to fill the gap, said Janu Chan, an economist with St. George Bank Ltd. in Sydney. Tourism may help, especially after the Australian dollar slipped against all but three of the Group of 10 currencies in the past year, making it cheaper to holiday in Australia for most overseas visitors.
Nearby Gladstone, originally named Port Curtis, is starting to woo travelers. Carnival Corp.’s P&O Cruises is scheduled to dock there six times next year, enabling passengers to visit the reef or even take a boat tour of the LNG plants, said Mayor Gail Sellers. Still, she’s not counting on Curtis Island drawing crowds of vacationers anytime soon, she said.
Unlike the Whitsunday Islands, about 600 kilometers further north, with their white-sand beaches, azure water and dense rain forest, the island that English explorer Matthew Flinders landed on in 1802 is more rustic and rugged. Among its features are a 20-story-high sand dune, called Yellow Patch, tranquil billabongs and flatback turtle nests.
Its raw beauty may pose a challenge to resort developers, said Graham Reynolds, a Brisbane picture framer who wrote a book about Curtis Island’s history.
“Perhaps you might get clever operators who can wrest some of that latent charm out of the place,” said Reynolds, who spent part of his childhood on the island, where his uncle was a maritime pilot.
Universal Partners BV, a Dutch real estate investment company, had planned to develop the northern tip of Curtis Island, which it said was the largest freehold, or non-leased, island-property in Australia. The plan didn’t gain traction with state and local governments and was shelved almost a decade later, said Rob Johnson, a designer who worked on the project and is now based in Jakarta.
“Sooner or later there will be a resort on Curtis Island,” said Reigel, who is pushing ahead with his plans for Turtle Street Beach Resort, a A$100 million ($72 million) project featuring 177 luxury villas and apartments, tennis courts, pools, a bar and restaurant. The proposal has drawn interest from Chinese investors, he said.
If approved by the Australian government, design work could begin immediately with the first stage of construction finished by the end of 2017, according to documents that Reigel’s company, QRE Pty, filed last month with environment authorities.
Reigel’s father, Bill, a former stockbroker, led a group of U.S. investors that acquired the cattle property, Monte Christo, in the mid 1970s with the goal of building a resort there. The proposal stalled in the 1980s, while the government considered setting up a naval base on the island.
In 1989, three years after his father died, Reigel started the effort to obtain state and local government clearance, the filing shows. The plans have been tied up in a “complex” approvals and negotiation process with government agencies since, while about 14,000 hectares have been given up for national and conservation parks.
The impetus for tourism developments is increasing. The Australian government estimates thousands of extra rooms are needed in capital cities and in Queensland state to meet its target of doubling visitor spending to as much as A$140 billion by 2020, and investors are responding. The country has the strongest hotel pipeline in more than a decade, said Karen Wales, senior investment specialist at the Australian Trade Commission.
Current projects in Queensland include the A$600 million redevelopment of Lindeman Island and plans by Aquis Group, controlled by Hong Kong developer Tony Fung, to build an A$8 billion casino-resort with 7,500 rooms on a former sugarcane farm north of Cairns.
Although industries outside minerals and energy are helping the economy, they are unlikely to plug the investment hole that resources companies have left, St. George’s Chan said. Resources-related infrastructure projects total more than A$90 billion in the Gladstone area alone.
“We’re a fly on an elephant’s behind in terms of the size and type of projects that happen around Gladstone,” Reigel said. “But the role we fill is helping to provide diversity to the industrial base.”
This article was written by James Paton from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.