A Remote Island Seeks a Boom Without a Bust
By Norimitsu Onishi
The New York Times, November 27, 2009
Christmas Island — ''The good times are back on Christmas Island,'' said Trish O'Donnell, this island's sole real estate agent. ''Three-quarters of Australians probably didn't know Christmas Island belonged to Australia, but now it's a speculators' market. All thanks to the I.D.C.''
That's short for the Immigration Detention Center, a $370 million facility the Australian government opened less than a year ago to house the increasing number of asylum-seekers coming by boat to Australia. Tucked away in the jungle, at the other end of this island's one inhabited corner, the center nevertheless has brought the whiff of quick, new money here.
The math was simple enough. Since the start of the year, the number of asylum-seekers has grown steadily, so that it now tops the population of local residents, around 1,100.
As immigration officials, guards, interpreters and others now fly in from mainland Australia for stretches of days or weeks, the island's limited facilities are enjoying a boom. Hotels are booked weeks in advance. Rents have doubled. Lucky Ho's and a handful of other restaurants turn away patrons without reservations.
Like many other islanders, Ms. O'Donnell, 53, was out to get her share of the new detention money, in her case by opening the Barracks, a restaurant and inn. ''When do we get the opportunity to make good money on Christmas Island?'' she said. ''We usually just sell to each other.''
If there was urgency in her tone, it was because of the knowledge that busts have usually followed booms on Christmas Island.
Only a decade ago, Christmas Island was home to a casino favored by rich Indonesians close to Suharto, the longtime autocrat of Indonesia, a short flight away. The casino's closing in 1998 — Suharto, perhaps not coincidentally, also fell that year — led to a decade of selling to one another.
The go-go days are now back, at least for some. But if unfathomable problems in places like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are now bringing asylum-seekers here, couldn't that stream dry up all of a sudden?
Being at the mercy of developments in faraway places is perhaps the fate of small, remote islands like this one, the tip of an extinct volcano sticking out of the Indian Ocean, some 220 miles south of Indonesia and almost 1,000 miles away from mainland Australia.
The inhabited area can be covered in a quick drive, possibly from inside Christmas Island's one taxi. The one movie theater — an outdoor amphitheater open for one weekly show on Saturday evenings — was recently offering ''Easy Virtue,'' released a year ago. The few times a week a plane flew in and out, the airport became a place to socialize over beers or gossip. People needed to know who was coming and who was going, one airport habitue named Faidal explained, though the island was so small that people would invariably run into one another on the street, at the one post office or at one of the two supermarkets.
With only a monthly community newspaper and a very slow Internet, messages were relayed by chalk on blackboards flanking the walls of a main roundabout. ''Welcome home, Tanja, Chris & Poppy,'' read one. ''For health reasons please do not feed Buddy,'' another warned cryptically, at least to the outsider unaware that Buddy was a mutt prone to wandering.
No one lived on Christmas Island until the discovery of phosphate drew the British here a little over a century ago. Indentured workers from China and Malaysia followed. After the island became Australian territory half a century ago, Australian managers who were paid Australian wages supervised Asian laborers paid Asian wages. Managers lived in a leafy neighborhood called Silver City that was off limits to Asians, in a colonial-like system that was dismantled in 1980 following reforms pushed through by a new union.
''At work, there was a European mess and an Asian mess,'' said Foo Kee Heng, an ethnic Chinese man who used to work in mining and is now deputy president of the Christmas Island shire.
Ethnic Chinese, who account for 60 percent of the population, and ethnic Malay, who account for 20 percent, are now Australian citizens; whites make up the other 20 percent.
But the phosphate industry began falling on hard times in the 1980s. Today, its uncertain future depends on whether the government will approve a plan to expand mining by 633 acres despite concerns about the impact on the island's rich biodiversity, including its symbol, the red crab.
In the 1990s, islanders all but forgot about phosphate after a rich Indonesian businessman built a $75 million, 200-acre casino on a beach just outside town. It quickly became a favorite for ethnic Chinese Indonesians unable to indulge in gambling in Jakarta. An 80-seat jet provided daily shuttles to Jakarta, though some of the wealthiest simply came on their private jets and were escorted from the airport to the casino in stretch limos.
''They were so rich that they boasted about how much they'd lost. If a guy could afford to lose more than another guy, that meant he was bigger,'' said Don Newton, 71, who worked at the casino as a personal handler for the biggest gamblers. ''One day one guy lost $12 million and just laughed.''
Mr. Newtown, who now runs a cafe often filled with people working in jobs related to the new immigration detention center, said the mood was more upbeat in the gambling days.
''Detention people are more officious,'' he said, ''whereas people at the casino were into hospitality.''
The casino and its hotel now lie dormant, though in remarkably good shape, given the tropical heat. Perhaps no one wanted it to reopen more than Michael Asims, the property's manager from 1995 until it closed in 1998. As the representative of the casino's new owner, an Australian, Mr. Asims lives in a house on the sprawling, deserted property, with his wife.
''I'd go nuts if I were by myself,'' he said, standing beside two large swimming pools that lay yawning between the casino building and the ocean.
As he saw it, resurrecting the place was the only way to secure Christmas Island's future, an opinion that went unchallenged in the quiet of the deserted gambling resort.
''We have mining, we have detention,'' he said, ''but people still view this as the real solution to long-term sustainability.''