Islanders Aim For A Future In Tourism

Islanders aim for a future in tourism
30th April 2009, 6:00 WST

Christmas Island must develop a significant tourism industry quickly or face becoming nothing more than an immigration detention island, community leaders said yesterday.

They say developing a tourism industry is critical because phosphate mining, the islands main economic driver, may only last another 10 years.

The mine is trying to get eight new leases to extend its life from 2016 to 2031 but must wait on a decision by Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett. It is the biggest employer on the island, with 135 workers out of a residential population of about 1200.

Christmas Island visitor centre manager Katrina Bird said the islands superb diving spots, pristine rainforest and unique fauna, such as its famous red crabs, gave it the selling points needed to attract tourists.

But visitor numbers would not increase from the current level of about 2000 a year unless airfares to the island, which can cost more than $2000 return from Perth, were subsidised by the Federal Government.

There is so much more to this island than immigration detention centres. Tourism is the way forward, but the situation with the airlines must be sorted out for that to happen, she said.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Attorney-Generals Department said airline Cobham had been contracted for 12 months to provide flights to Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands and the Government had negotiated lower airfares.

Lisa Preston, from Christmas Island Travel, said return airfares to Perth with Cobham cost about $998, while seats on new carrier AIOTA started from $990.

She said visitor numbers were expected to increase from June when AIOTA began a weekly Boeing 737 flight from Kuala Lumpur through Singapore to Christmas Island.

But Shire of Christmas Island president Gordon Thomson said the island did not have enough accommodation for big numbers of tourists.

A refurbishment of the neglected Christmas Island Resort was crucial because the island had only 110 rooms of motel-style accommodation.

The resort, which housed a casino that was profitable at its peak in the mid-1990s, closed in 1998 before opening again in June 2007 for 13 months.

Resort manager Michael Asims said he had urged the owner of the property to consider opening some rooms in time for the start of the new flights from Singapore.

Another 54 asylum seekers and two crew members are expected to arrive on Christmas Island by the weekend after their boat was intercepted on Saturday, 90 nautical miles south-west of Ashmore Reef.