Beautiful one day, forgotten the next

Queensland, once a summer holiday mecca, is no longer Australia's place in the sun, writes Damien Murphy.

Queensland, once a summer holiday mecca, is no longer Australia's place in the sun, writes Damien Murphy.

Cyclone Yasi hit Mission Beach with destructive winds and a tidal surge in the early-morning darkness of last February. No matter, a sign on the Bruce Highway between Innisfail and Tully cheerfully beckons passers-by: "Get high, get wet, get laid at Mission Beach."

Queensland once went from beautiful to perfect in a single sentence but there is something about its tourism industry that encourages excess. It was a state that used to run on sunshine alone but an overdose of cargo cultism threatens to destroy the very thing Australians went to enjoy.

They came for decades and the place names - Surfers, Coolangatta, Peregian, Mooloolaba, Green Island, Great Keppel, Kirra, Burleigh - could evoke the kind of warmth bestowed only by memory. They are sunny places where some of the happiest moments of childhood and the best and worst of their teenage years live forever.

Come September, the rich kids would return from school holidays to show off Surfers' tans and tell stories of being ejected from pubs in Coolangatta for not being 21. Stories of walking across the street into NSW and ordering a beer, of how dumb the Queensland cops were at the Broadbeach Hotel for believing a 15-year-old kid brother was legal age.

Come December, schoolies week turned Surfers Paradise into a trysting spot and vomitorium. By school holidays, Sea World and Dreamworld became a sort of local Disneyland and dream destination for children across Australia.

Come cyclone season, according to Sydney surfer Ian Goodacre, riding the precision-like surf breaking along riverstone rocks that line the bays of Noosa Heads was like "having a cup of tea with God".

Honeymooners came throughout the year, staying at resorts with "Hawaiian nights" and Maori showbands who sang perfect Trini Lopez and renditioned Barbara Ann in their best Beach Boy style. Meanwhile, porpoises leapt with idiot smiling faces out of the pool at Tweed Heads.

Queensland holiday snaps litter many Australian photo albums, mementoes of a golden era, perhaps, but in the digital age the state looks pretty faded and grainy.

Cargo cults strung along the Queensland coast live a sort of build-it-and-they-will-come reality. They enjoyed two waves of success during the 1960s and the 1990s. The first came courtesy of rich businessmen, mainly from Melbourne. In the second, Japanese and other overseas investors spent money like drunken sailors.

Collectively, they've carpet-bombed the Gold Coast with high-rises and spent millions on a private airport that turned Cairns, a once somnambulant sugar and fishing centre, into a frenzied boom town gone bust. They converted Noosa into a ritzy, overpriced retirement village where bored, inattentive staff minister to bored, inattentive retirees and too few holidaymakers.

Australians, once the backbone of Queensland tourism, can fly more cheaply to beaches in Asia and the Pacific. Fewer and fewer Japanese come and other Asian nations have not made up the shortfall. There are non-economic drivers, too: wetsuits have so extended southern beaches that Queensland's warm waves are no longer so coveted. Besides, surf at any of the overcrowded points becomes an off-putting battle with the local underemployed. Even less savoury locals have helped the Gold and Sunshine coasts usurp Adelaide's talent for murder.

The Mexican maxim "the sun is the blanket of the poor" seems to have been taken to heart by "Mexicans" from south of the Tweed, with the homeless overrunning temporary shelters, and robbery and violence a part of daily life. The dream of living in the sun has drawn people from across Australia and New Zealand, and now Queensland's south-east corner and the far north tourist regions are sagging under the combined load of too many people, too few jobs and poor infrastructure investment.

In the 1950s, when California replaced England as a place to aspire to, Australia took to the beach big-time but Queenslanders remained too scared to go into the water. Can't blame them, really. In far north Queensland, jellyfish killed them and crocodiles cruised offshore. Down south, sharks continued to pick off the occasional swimmer and provided a lucrative living for sideshow alley shark hunter Vic Hislop, an early form of Steve Irwin who terrified generations into believing Moreton Bay was Australia's shark central. Even when southerners started arriving to use their beaches in the early 1960s, Queenslanders remained deeply unmoved.

Bitter experience taught Queenslanders not to ape southerners. Hadn't southerners always misused them? For starters, Sydney transported its most loathsome convicts to Moreton Bay after trying Newcastle, Norfolk Island, Portsea and Port Arthur. When Queensland broke away from NSW in 1859, Sydney left an insulting 7? pence in the new colony's treasury. Somebody even pinched that. The tendency to say nothing and do less when it came to southerners was well entrenched when the young men of Sydney and Melbourne arrived to ride the point breaks of the Gold Coast and Noosa Heads in the mid-1960s: the locals let them take the waves and their girls. Service has retained its equanimity since.

In the 1960s, the Gold Coast was a place of scattered fibro shacks and genteel weatherboard Queenslander boarding houses. A foreign face was as rare as an exposed female breast and crime was a suburb in a Hollywood gangster picture. It was Melburnian Bruce Small who built the destination and destroyed the idyll.

He manufactured Malvern Star bicycles and, courtesy of publicity from his champion Hubert Opperman's long-distance rides and petrol rationing during the war, made a two-wheel fortune. Small turned mangrove swamps into canal estates, handily combined the role of developer and politician and, as mayor, introduced meter maids and promoted the Gold Coast throughout Australia and New Zealand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. Nearing death in 1980, he recalled those early years as "a wonderful, friendly, family paradise".

These days Small is remembered by a side street statue in Surfers. Queenslanders are not noted sentimentalists: a shopping mall statue of Michelangelo's David that swelled hearts when unveiled during the Japanese investment boom was exiled from Raptis Plaza and now stands forgotten on a hinterland golf links. Small's most enduring monument was teaching his fellow Queensland National MP, the premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to sell Queensland overseas. Sometimes it feels as though the state has stood still since Sir Joh left office.

Back in the day, the Japanese rarely went anywhere unless they owned a piece of the action. They bought up Hawaii after statehood came in 1959 and poured into Honolulu. Twenty-two years later, Bjelke-Petersen handed over a swamp at Yeppoon outside Rockhampton to a Japanese billionaire, Yohachiro Iwasaki. The RSL had a conniption, somebody bombed the place on election day. The locals didn't care much either way and started learning Japanese in anticipation of the cornucopia to come.

Iwasaki was an influential member of Japan's ruling clique with links to Japan Air Lines and his piece of the action at Yeppoon green-lighted Tokyo's money men. The Japanese invaded big-time, snapping up chunks of the Gold Coast and Cairns.

Now the hotels they built have changed hands many times. Cairns's international airport terminal is a shadow of its former self. Japanese investors who forked out $250 million to build a golf resort they called Laguna Quays near Proserpine sold out for a paltry $23 million.

The cost of Queensland's development-at-any-price philosophy was neatly portrayed last February in photographs of the aftermath of cyclone Yasi at Port Hinchinbrook on the outskirts of the town of Cardwell. The port is a housing development for wealthy codgers and their third wives in far north Queensland. It was built only after massive protests from conservationists concerned about the impact on fish breeding grounds in nearby mangroves behind Hinchinbrook Island. The photographs, taken after the cyclone, showed scores of multimillion-dollar launches smashed together, somehow symbolic of the rash stupidity in building such a place in a cyclone alley.

But then the developer, the late Keith Williams, was canny in his ability to bend Queensland governments to his will. A water-ski champion in the 1950s, he developed Sea World and Hamilton Island during his days as one of Bjelke-Petersen's white-shoe brigade urgers before turning his attention to Hinchinbrook. He is dead, his multimillion-dollar project is on hold, estate residents do not know what the future will bring. Meanwhile, taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Yasi knocked tourism down for the count in far north Queensland. The coastal strip between Cardwell and Innisfail, surely one of Australia's most picturesque regions, had its jungle stripped bare and sugar and banana plantations knocked flat. One of the area's real pearls, Mission Beach, is struggling, just like the rest of tourism-built Queensland, to reinvent itself.

Some history: started as an ironically named camp for Aborigines, Mission Beach was first destroyed by a cyclone in 1918. In the 1960s, a concentration of Melburnians arrived in the wake of publicity about federal treasurer Harold Holt preparing budgets at nearby Bingil Bay, while Dunk Island floated offshore like a voluptuous woman. Zara Holt, his then wife, liked it, too, and brought her new husband, Jeff Bate, there after Holt went bodysurfing at Portsea. When Mission Beach was World Heritage listed as part of the west tropics, a tourism boom followed.

But Cyclone Yasi frightened tourists away. Grey nomad numbers tumbled. With little seasonal work available, backpackers from Asia and Europe stopped coming.

The tourism entrepreneur's sign on the Bruce Highway - "Get high, get wet, get laid at Mission Beach" - now flaunts local attractions. Mission Beach might be one of the world's last cassowary refuges but skydiving, swimming and accommodation beats a flightless bird threatened with extinction any day in the land of perfection and excess.

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