China Bloom Pty Ltd in April 2019 entered into a 99-year lease agreement with the Queensland Government and life for 40 or so residents in this little paradise was never the same again. It was a quiet takeover—nobody was aware of—of a paradise island.
The island of Keswick lies in the southern half of the Whitsunday Islands, 34 km north-east of the Queensland City of Mackay. At the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, it is declared a national park. It is part of the Cumberland Islands, 70 in all, that lay protected inside the waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Trouble in paradise
Before the year 2019 even ended, there had been many reports on a number of developments that took place in this ‘little paradise’. First, as China Bloom acquired the head lease over all the residential and commercial precincts, making residents who had been living on the island before the 99-year deal instant sublessees.
Also, since taking over the lease, the developer has clashed with residents over issues involving the building of a boat ramp without council approval, flattening a shoreline where turtles are known to nest, and the company warding off tourists with ‘keep out’ signs. Island residents also say they can’t go back to their homes.
Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science said it found no evidence of permanent damage to turtle habitat or nests during inspections between May and July this year of 2020.
“I just don’t think they want Australians on the island,” former island resident Julie Willis told the news program “A Current Affair.” “I think that they want to have this island solely for the use of the Chinese tourism market.”
“Keep Out!” signs warded off tourists
“There have been no tourists since September last year,” former resident Rayna Asbury told the news program. Most of Keswick Island is a national park, which is open to the public, but residents believe the ‘Keep Out’ signs have warded off tourists.
Real estate agent and resident Karen Cooke said property prices had plummeted in recent years, and access to the island had become too difficult because the airstrip was now off-limits to private and commercial planes.
The Chinese developer prohibited residents from renting their homes on Airbnb. The residents say it has ruined tourism and blocked them from entering the island from air, land, and sea.
Responsible for a resolution
The Queensland Department of Resources told the Aussie news program it hoped that any issues between the island’s residents and China Bloom can be resolved. It is responsible for working with both the head lessee China Bloom and sublessees to ensure all relevant activities are in accordance with the terms of the lease. In particular, the lease makes China Bloom the island developer responsible for “the upgrade of the island’s roads, boat ramps, jetties, and marine infrastructure.
The majority of the issues raised by a small number of sublessees do not fall under the terms of the lease and are a commercial matter between them and the head lessee to resolve.” the department said.
There has been tension between Australia and China, over an image showing an Australian soldier killing an Afghan child that was shared on social media by a Chinese official. China refused to apologize for the photo, which the Australian government called fake.