Three years ago, in the midst of a Tasmanian cold snap, I headed for a few days on Fraser Island, north of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Obvious comparative advantages aside (Queensland in winter is still, sunny and warm), I also travelled thanks to the generosity of the Fraser Coast Tourism Board, the authority charged with the responsibility of driving visitor numbers towards that particular part of South-East Queensland.
For those unfamiliar with the region, the Fraser Coast stretches roughly from the tourism hotspot of the Sunshine Coast north towards the Great Barrier Reef.
I’d been there before.
On a backpacking trip in 1987, I left Maryborough in a hurry. A couple of locals in the pub seemed keen on getting to know the inner me, Deliverance-style, in full view of those drinking XXXX in the main bar. I made my excuses and left, virtue intact, and hitchhiked to Harvey Bay, then a minor seaside town with two pubs. Both were full of timber industry types who appeared wary of strangers and reluctant to engage in conversation. Perhaps I should have trimmed my ponytail before leaving Sydney. I couldn’t wait to head further north, a rare ambition from anybody familiar with the sunshine state.
I didn’t manage to visit Fraser Island on that trip. In fact I probably set a new record for the shortest stay, and lowest spend in the region. But years later, I would return again and again.
You see, Fraser Island has many of the features that makes Tasmania so attractive. And like Tasmania, until 1991 at least, Fraser Island was the focus of a bitter campaign to protect its remaining environmental values from the exploitation of the logging industry.
Tasmania and Fraser Island have much in common. Both rank amongst Australia’s largest islands, with stunning forests, pristine beaches and freshwater inland lakes. The World Heritage Commission, a reasonable arbiter of natural heritage values, recognises the importance of both.
No longer the secret preserve of Queensland holidaymakers, Fraser now draws 500,000 visitors each year, a number that continues to climb. A thriving tourism industry, from the seaside town of Rainbow Beach to the city of Bundaberg further north, owes much of its prosperity to the attractions of Fraser Island.
There’s no longer any logging on Fraser. None. The island’s unique forests, boasting amazing stands of pine, blackbutt and tallowwood, first attracted the attention of commercial loggers 150 years ago. Selective harvesting over the next century saw timber from the island used in shipbuilding, railway construction, and even in the development of the Suez Canal.
By the 1970s, logging had become a major industry on the Fraser Coast. With the low hanging fruit on the mainland cut down, timber cutters moved into Fraser’s unique rainforests, with the network of tramways and roads still existing as evidence of how close Fraser came to total defoliation. Industrial forestry saw timber extraction from Fraser Island increase tenfold in just a few years.
Across the bay, Maryborough was a timber town. Despite the appeal of its built heritage (the town represents perhaps the best preserved examples of Queensland streetscapes anywhere), sawmilling was the only game around. Fraser’s forests weren’t processed on the island, rather they were shipped by barge to Maryborough before being milled and distributed across Queensland. Not surprisingly, timber processing was Maryborough’s biggest employer.
Initial opposition to the deforestation of Fraser Island came from a handful of locals, who faced the usual timber industry reprisals of threats, intimidation and in a number of occasions, physical assault. Joh Bjelke Peterson, hardly known for his sympathy towards environmental causes, labelled opponents to logging as `criminals and communists’. Despite the backing of Government, public concern about what was happening on Fraser continued to grow, and timber lobbyists mounted their own political campaign.
Logging, they argued, had been a tradition on Fraser Island for 130 years, and was a sustainable industry. The Fraser Coast relied on logging, and anyway, the region had little attraction for tourists. Jobs were at stake. If conservationists succeeded in destroying the industry, then workers and contractors must be paid compensation. Familiar arguments perhaps, but also persuasive ones. Even former Prime Minister Bob Hawke entered the debate, claiming 500 jobs were under threat.
At the forefront of the pro-logging lobby was a timber executive by the name of Greg LeStrange. He was to lose this battle.
The Fitzgerald enquiry into logging on Fraser Island culminated in a devasting critique of the timber industry. Within a relatively short space of time, logging had ceased; Fraser Island became World Heritage Listed, and around 60 displaced timber contractors were paid compensation.
Since 1991 when the last stands of timber were chainsawed, two key factors have become clear: First, logging on Fraser Island was never sustainable. Every attempt to to regenerate timber on Fraser Island, from the 19th century to the current day, has failed. Nature, it seems, wants to keep the secret of growing timber on a sand island away from the logging industry. Second, in a rebuff to the doomsayers, the economy of the region has never been better.
After three days on Fraser, I returned to the new five star Peppers Resort at Harvey Bay, one of a number of towns which now claim to be the gateway to Fraser Island. Two decades ago, a complex of this scale and opulence would have been unimaginable to most of the locals. After all, Harvey Bay was a working class town. It still is, and to the credit of planning authorities, the continued development of the foreshore sees new resorts blend reasonably well with fibro shacks, and the public caravan park. There’s no elitism here.
Milking the most from the visiting journalist program, the penultimate morning of my visit saw me mingle with half a dozen American and Japanese businesmen on a fishing charter, all who had paid over $1,000 in the hope of snaring a marlin. Skipper Tony, a weathered Queenslander in his middle years, admitted to owning a fleet of five vessels, all of which were heavily booked for the coming season.
Over a few refreshments that evening, Tony told me he initially planned a career in engineering. Graduating in the mid 1980s and unable to find work near his home town of Maryborough, he ended up as a timber cutter on Fraser Island. After a couple of years, and seeing the end of the industry in sight, he used his savings, and a hefty overdraft to buy a 20 foot charter boat. He’s never looked back.
I asked about his former workmates who were displaced when the logging ban took force in 1991. He shrugged, saying a handful had taken compensation payments and moved elsewhere. Others had moved on in other ways; retraining, reskilling and adapting to a changed economy. One, Tony said, was now the CEO of a local hospital. Another owned an eco-tourism business on Fraser Island.
In just two decades, the Fraser Coast has been transformed. Beach shacks, once considered the poor second cousins of Gold Coast apartments, now change hands for prices which would make a Sandy Bay real estate agent salivate. The availability of more modest housing, at a fraction of Brisbane prices, lured thousands of retirees north. In their wake, tradesmen, builders, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals and growing numbers of tourists followed.
The Fraser Coast has embraced change, and the benefits have been enormous.
Yet Tasmania, a State which I’d argue has a diversity of natural attractions which dwarf even the magnificent Fraser Island, is in decline.
It was declining in 1987, when the weather had improved enough for me to leave Queensland and visit Tasmania, in the hope of climbing Federation Peak. Then premier Robin Gray, having failed in a bid to bankrupt Tasmania by flooding the Franklin River, had found a new way to annoy Greenies. Tasmanian’s remote southern forests were being dissected by hundreds of miles of logging roads, and clearfelled right up to the boundary of the newly declared World Heritage Area. After speaking to a few people, Tasmanian forestry, I was told, was not only sustainable, but vital to the local economy. I suspected those claims were bullshit in 1987; age and experience has done little change my suspicions since.
That’s why my personal and professional colleagues on mainland Australia scarcely believe Tasmania continues to endorse, promote, and subsidise industrial scale logging. Every other state in Australia has long since recognised that forests have a value greater than that measured in bone dry metric tonnes aboard a Japanese woodchip boat.
I’ve lived and worked in many places, but never seen anything like the Tasmanian refusal to learn from the mistakes of others.
Instead of protecting our remaining forests, we trash them and ship them overseas in the form of woodchips. Instead of highlighting Tasmania’s unique colonial heritage and natural beauty, the tourism spend is blown on football, car racing and overseas junkets for public servants. Instead of encouraging investment and innovation, we subside unprofitable and failing businesses. Instead of schemes to promote Tasmania as the perfect retirement destination, we foster a culture of antipathy towards older people.
There’s still time to change. The only glimmer of economic light in the last two decades followed a brief influx of migrants to Tasmania in 2002/03. Those 4,000 or so mainlanders who chose to make the Island State their home involuntarily triggered a property boom, as well as reinvigorating the local culture. Yet there’s still a lingering suspicion of mainlanders, even in political circles.
But the current crop of political, business and community leaders aren’t keen on revolution. I suspect they don’t even believe in evolution. Perhaps they need to spend a few days on Fraser Island.
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• ABC Online: Worst tourism slump in 10 years
A conference has heard Tasmania’s tourism sector is in its worst downturn in a decade.
The Tourism Industry Council conference in Launceston has been told it is a slump that will be made worse by a cut in government spending.
Marketing consultant Dan Blair said tourism operators across the state were struggling and visitor numbers had dropped for the first time in 10 years.
“The last six to nine months have been the toughest we’ve seen for quite some time,” he said.
“We’ve had a decade of strong growth in visitor numbers and market share, and that’s just turned down.”
Council chairman Simon Currant says the slump will be made worse by a $20 million cut in State Government funding to the tourism sector over four years.
“Every other state government, in their wisdom, is increasing their commitment to their tourism industry.”
“Cutting investment into this industry is going to lead to many more job losses,” he said.
He says it will lead to a further drop in visitor numbers and job losses.
Mr Blair says the Tasmanian industry needs to continue marketing itself interstate and overseas, despite the high Australian dollar.
“The consumers out there understand the strengths of Tasmanian tourism and are very open to experiencing them, but we need to fill those knowledge gaps and bring them closer to the actual product.”