Natural jewels go from despair to repair
WHEN "all hell broke loose" as Cyclone Debbie laid waste to the Whitsundays last year, few knew she'd come with a billion-dollar silver lining.
His eyes hollow with fatigue, Hamilton Island chief executive Glenn Bourke stood in front of 600 staff after it hit and spoke of the long recovery ahead.
"We survived," the former Olympian told a packed room of some of the island's 2000 staff and 500 residents and business owners.
"What we faced was both terrifying and demanding in epic proportions."
He spoke about the time when the tops of buildings were torn off by the category four cyclone, packing winds up to 263km/h and "all hell broke loose". Hotels, houses and apartments were ripped open, windows smashed, trees stripped and luxury yachts broken apart on rock walls in the marina.
Panicked guests who defied calls to evacuate the island as the cyclone barrelled towards the coast - with reports of a 6m-high storm surge - flooded social media with posts saying they "thought they'd die".
Bourke rallied his troops.
"What we've already proven is we're a tough and resilient community who in the Australian vernacular are always here to help a mate.
"It was apocalyptic. We've learnt a lot of lessons.''
Hamilton Island owner Sandy Oatley, whose late dad Bob had invested $550 million in developing the resort, was on the island in the cyclone's immediate aftermath and guaranteed no staff would lose their jobs.
"I can't believe how uplifted, how positive they (the Oatleys) were to the task of not only resurrecting Hamilton Island, but taking it to the next level," Bourke said.
"They are committed with their wallets; they are committed with their passion."
Today, almost 18 months on, once magnificent forests of hoop pine stand as bare pillars - like crucifixes lining the hills of a graveyard - in testimony to the raw power of Mother Nature.
Up to metre-high piles of the bleached white bones of dead coral layer the beaches and bays of many of the 77 islands in the Whitsunday Group.
But for all the havoc, destruction and damage, Cyclone Debbie has proven to be a $1 billion windfall for the Whitsunday region.
The Courier-Mail's Insight team has witnessed first-hand the transformation of some of the iconic resorts in the state's $6.4 billion reef tourism industry.
Airlie Beach is a hive of activity, rental accommodation is at a premium, cyclone-ravaged homes have been fixed, and the local economy is humming with tourists, backpackers and tradesmen.
Every day workers in
high-viz, steel-capped boots and hard hats stream on and off the ferry boats to islands, paid three times the going rate to rebuild damaged resorts.
Hamilton and Long Island resorts were the only two to stay operational - others such as Daydream and Hayman are still shut for $100 million overhauls.
Hamilton Island has completely renovated its signature six-star resort Qualia - which played host to Oprah and singer Taylor Swift - to a new standard in luxury, costing about $750 a night.
Family holidaymakers in the boom domestic market can also look forward to a new four-star, 84-room hotel overlooking Catseye Beach in a $13 million, three-year redevelopment of the Palm Terrace Hotel.
Ever since it was demolished by the cyclone in March last year, Hayman Island resort, the northernmost island in the Whitsundays, has been a
no-go zone to visitors.
Hayman's Blue Pearl Bay, once the number one snorkelling site in the Whitsundays, was estimated to have lost more than 90 per cent of its fringing coral reef.
But exclusive images captured by The Courier-Mail show its stunning return to former glory.
Local skindiver Clare Nixon, snorkelling off Hayman, found large patches of reef with colourful soft and hard corals, and abundant marine life in a stunning recovery.
"It's one of the most beautiful places on Earth - above and below the water," she says.
"No doubt, Cyclone Debbie was a devastating event.
"But it's just remarkable how quickly everything is bouncing back."
Hayman Island resort boss Mark Eletr tells Insight they are working to "reimagine the iconic Australian island resort".
"The opening of Hayman Island by (new managers) InterContinental will be a momentous occasion for IHG and the Hayman Island resort team," he says.
"It will be for guests who are looking for an experience that's nothing short of sublime.
"Redevelopment work is well under way. I look forward to Hayman Island coming back to life, and to welcoming guests like family to our island paradise in 2019."
As Queensland's top-end operators wrangle their destiny back from the forces of nature, there are more than 10 resorts, developed in the 1980s, that are shut, run-down or in total disrepair.
Three decades on and those once dreamy islands - like South Molle, Dunk Island, Brampton and Great Keppel - just don't cut it anymore for discerning domestic and international travellers.
With cheap international flights to Bali, Fiji, Hawaii, Thailand and Vietnam, the entire landscape of the island resort getaway holiday has changed.
Not to mention the sheer cost of logistics to own and run an island in Queensland, dealing with unpredictable weather, access, freshwater supplies, consistency of staff and getting reliable quality of produce.
Daydream Island boss Mark Fletcher, who is overseeing its transformation, is familiar with the saying: "How do you make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune and buy an island resort."
His dad used to run South Molle Island 40 years ago when the now defunct, cyclone-destroyed hulk of a resort was a pumping,
must-do destination for backpackers, boaties, families and tourists alike.
"To go back after Debbie and see the damage - wow, it's got some incredible scenes of destruction," Fletcher says.
He's now a top Australia-based executive with CCIG (China Capital and Investment Group), the Shanghai-based conglomerate that owns both Daydream and South Molle Islands.
CCIG is working with local, state and federal governments on how to undertake the colossal task of cleaning up, starting this year, on South Molle.
"We've never been issued with a formal directive because they know we have a commitment there - a lot of it is around logistics of getting things on and off the island, tides, timing, barging, the amount of available workers in region. There are limitations," Fletcher says.
But his main priority is to reopen Daydream Island.
The scheduled opening was August 13 and delays have seen it pushed back until late this year.
"When we reopen, we want the big 'wow' factor," he tells Insight.
"We want people to sit there and say, 'This is amazing'."
Gone are the bright pinks and pastel greens of the 1980s, replaced with a classic Queenslander theme in natural, neutral tones.
"I will never say Debbie was a godsend. But she has definitely hastened the improvement of resorts through the region.
"About $100 million will be spent on Daydream. It was going to be a $52 million renovation, but we've taken a totally different perspective.
"Every single room has been refurbished - not just a coat of paint; these rooms have been stripped to bare bones. Everything is new from the floors, air-conditioning to gyprock walls.
"Before, it was a 30-year-old resort - it had issues with television and phones. Now it has got the latest in technology, televisions and data access."
Talk to other local business leaders, tourism operators and council, and there is more than $1 billion of work, with tradies at Hamilton, Hayman, Daydream, Airlie Beach, Bowen and Proserpine.
"When you look at it from a perspective of storms, Cyclone Debbie was the second worst to hit Australia - the worst being Cyclone Tracy.
"Obviously it was very devastating but one positive is there's a lot of work; everyone is very positive about our future direction - we've bounced back.
"Daydream has always been a family favourite.
"We want to make sure our pricing appeals to the family market - from a standard room at about $180 a night to the chairman's four-bedroom residence up to $5000 a night for those who want a VIP experience."
The turtle hospital and living reef are being vastly expanded, where the free-form coral lagoon will wrap 200m around the central building and hold more than 1.5 million litres of water.
Guests will join the team of marine biologists who live on the island and feed baby stingrays, among more than 100 species of fish, coral, starfish, sea cucumbers and crabs.
It is home to the first giant shovelnose ray born in captivity, named "Barry" by local schoolchildren, inspired by the Great Barrier Reef.
"It is going to be one of the showcases in our resort. It is not an aquarium, but guests can interact and get in and swim with living animals like reef sharks, stingrays and see what it is like to experience the reef," Fletcher says.
He's confident the new-look Whitsunday Island resorts will give visitors the "wow factor they want".
"The thing with the Whitsundays is it's on the doorstep of every Australian.
"If you look at the Great Barrier Reef, not only is it iconic, but there is nothing like it anywhere else in world. You can go to Bali or Hawaii, or you can come to this living natural wonder.
"Whether diving or snorkelling on the reef, or going to Whitehaven Beach for a picnic, it is just an amazing, spectacular place.
"We're getting the whales coming back through, we're seeing the growth of coral around islands, we're seeing marine animals like dolphins and manta rays coming back in. It is the rebirth of paradise."
■ Hayman Island in the Whitsundays, badly damaged by Cyclone Debbie is undergoing a $100m renovation, was put on the market by Malaysian-based owners Mulpha Group but had few offers on a $300 price tag.
■ Kingfisher Bay Resort Group, on Fraser Island, was sold in February by Japanese real estate group Cosmos Initia to tourism group Sealink for $43m.
■ Daydream Island, formerly owned by vitamin king Vaughan Bullivant, sold in early 2015 to Shanghai-based China Capital Investment Group for $30m. Smashed by Cyclone Debbie, It is being transformed in a $100m rebuild
■ South Molle Island, formerly owned by tourism identity Craig Ross, sold in August 2016 to China Capital Investment Group for $26.5m.
■ Heron Island and Wilson Island, off Gladstone, sold in January last year to Vancouver-based Chinese investors Aldesta Group, for a confidential deal believed to be less than $10m.
■ Fitzroy Island, off Cairns, bought by Darwin tourism identity Doug Gamble for $8m in 2010, has just had a $2.5m refurbishment and has been listed seeking offers of $30m.
■ Lizard Island, north of Cooktown, bought from Voyages for $10m in 2009 by New York-based hospitality giant Delaware North, has undergone a $50m renovation after being ravaged by category five Cyclones Ita and Nathan.
■ Dunk Island, off Mission Beach, destroyed by Cyclone Yasi, was bought by Linc Energy founder Peter Bond in 2011 for $7.9m.
■ Bedarra Island, near Dunk Island, was bought by Queensland pub baron Sam Charlton, for $5m in 2011 and converted into a boutique five-star eco-resort.
■ Lindeman Island, in the Whitsundays, sold to China's White Horse media mogul William Han for $12m in 2012 and has just won approval for a $583m eco-tourism resort redevelopment and is expected to be ready for guests in 2022.
■ Orpheus Island, in the Palm Island Group near Townsville, was bought by Computershare founder and tourism magnate Chris Morris for $6.25m in 2011, who now plans to build a $4m luxury lodge on nearby Pelorus Island in a move endorsed by Thor actor Chris Hemsworth and his wife Elsa Pataky.
■ Great Keppel Island, off Yeppoon, was bought by property tycoon Terry Agnew of Tower Holdings for $16.5m in 2006, was slated for a $600m development including a marina, 750 villas, 300 apartments, a 250-room beachfront hotel, golf course, infrastructure, retail village, casino, airstrip and research centre, and is now on the market seeking offers between $25m-$30m.
■ Tangalooma Island Resort in Moreton Bay, 35km offshore from Brisbane, is on the market for the first time in 30 years. The 223-room luxury resort has permits for a "masterplan" development expansion and is seeking expressions of interest for at least $70m.