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Pokie-Tourism: Campbell Newman’s Dream for our Tropical North

The name Aquis probably doesn’t mean much to you if you live outside Far North Queensland.  If you do, it’s a name that’s been on everyone’s lips for the last year and has dominated local media.

Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort is a mega casino proposed for the sleepy Cairns beach suburb of Yorkeys Knob – a beautiful, but environmentally sensitive and flood prone area on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. At an estimated $8.15 billion to build, it’s a development of unprecedented scale in a city of 150,000 people, and its bold promises to reinvigorate the region have won many followers.  None more so than than the Queensland Government, who have granted it one of two new regional casino licences up for grabs, provided conditions are met.

The Newman Government has been salivating over Queensland’s potential for gambling revenue for some time, obsessed with turning the state into Australia’s own Nevada.  Queensland’s economy has been suffering over the last few years, largely due to the downturn in the mining sector.  Though still hell bent on selling off Queensland’s environment to the highest bidder, Campbell Newman now sees casino revenue as a much needed quick buck, to line the state coffers during these economically challenging times.

But at what cost?

Since Newman opened up bidding for three new casino licences last year, one in Brisbane and two in regional Queensland, developers have been chomping at the bit to get a piece of the action. One of these developers, and the man behind the Cairns mega casino, is Hong Kong billionaire Tony Fung.  His dream?  To turn Cairns into a flashy gambling Mecca to rival Macau.  According to Fung,

“North Queensland is missing the man-made wonder of the world, which is presented in Aquis.”   

Image courtesy of katesenviroblog.com.au

Not content with Cairns’ unique, natural wonders – the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, the endemic wildlife – his vision is one of bright lights, glitz and 24 hour gambling.  And for Fung,  the bigger, the better – everything in his ‘resort’ is super-sized. His target market?  Chinese high rollers, who can gamble their days away while their families enjoy the other facilities – theatres, horse riding, a mega Aquarium, artificial lagoons, shopping, sports stadiums, restaurants, golf courses – visitors won’t ever need to leave the resort.  They won’t even need to use local taxis – on arrival into Cairns airport, they will be chauffeured or transferred by courtesy bus directly to the resort.

At the heart of Fung’s ‘resort’ is a gigantic gambling hub, consisting of two casinos.  Aquis is requesting the same number of pokies as Sydney’s Star City Casino, and more gaming tables than Australia’s two largest casinos (The Crown & Star City) combined.  Fung is also in the midst of taking over Cairns’ existing casino, the Reef Hotel.

Fung submitted his initial Aquis application to the Queensland government last July, who declared it a ‘Coordinated Project’ a mere six days later.  For a multi-billion dollar development next to the world heritage listed waters of the Great Barrier Reef, this is alarmingly fast.  The normal, stringent process of environmental and social assessments can take months, even years to complete. Aquis has bypassed the proper environmental approval process from the beginning.

In a submission to the Department of Environment in April, Fung maintained that Aquis does not require a commonwealth environmental assessment process, as any impacts on the surrounding environment are not significant enough to warrant it. Andrew Picone, FNQ Campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation thinks otherwise, stating,

“We have a developer here who thinks he should be given all the approvals, but there is due process and the community should have its say.”  

Despite a multitude of environmental concerns yet to be sufficiently addressed, the casino licence was recently granted, before the Environmental Impact Statement was even released.  According to Denis Walls, coordinator of local opposition group Aquis Aware,

“We assumed the EIS would come out before the licence was given – I mean, giving a licence to somebody before the EIS is scandalous.”

Without doubt, Far North Queensland is going through some economically challenging times.  With high levels of unemployment, particularly amongst the youth, I understand the need to boost the Cairns economy and to stimulate much needed growth and development in the region.  But using a mega casino as a bandage to fix a flawed economic model will not accomplish this.

Gambling is not a stable source of state revenue.  The success of Aquis is completely dependent on the economies of the Asian tourists that Fung is trying to lure. Most people realise that the Cairns economy is too reliant on tourism and needs to diversify in order grow sustainably. Diversification ensures that the local economy survives through the tourist low season, as well as any global economic downturns which may reduce overseas visitors dramatically.

Even the Cairns Chamber of Commerce listed diversification as one of their top 5 federal election priorities in 2013. Hedging all our bets on Asian tourists to solve economic problems is doomed for failure and is not aligned with the Chamber’s own top priorities.

And what about the tourist sector, the backbone of the Cairns economy?  Sure, Fung will reap the benefits of the gambling high rollers.  But turning the city into a flashy gambling hub has the potential to discourage the huge numbers of existing tourists, who already flock to Cairns for its natural wonders and relaxed, unflashy lifestyle.  According to Tourism Australia’s own research,

“Research… on the drivers of demand for international visitors to Australia shows that our natural attractions are by far the greatest appeal… casinos, bars and nightclubs came at or very near the bottom of the list of 19 appeal factors.”

Perceived benefits to local businesses from the increase in tourist numbers is one of the main reasons that people support the new casino.  But the reality is that local business suffer when you centralise shopping, restaurants, hotels, entertainment into one facility.  With everything in one resort, guests will have significantly reduced need to leave the complex, meaning small business may have to downsize or close altogether.

Tourism and business aside, do we really want Cairns to become the new Macau of Fung’s dreams?  Macau has been plagued by a host of problems since opening up its economy to foreign casinos in 2002 including organised crime, prostitution and environmental degradation.  It’s certainly not something to aspire to, and I question anyone who thinks otherwise.

And the supposed employment of thousands of local workers? Aquis has promised thousands of jobs to Cairns locals during both the construction and operational phases. However, we know the original plans include 1,800 staff accommodation units.  If Aquis will employ locals, why is so much permanent staff accommodation required?   Any construction jobs will be temporary, and will likely consist large numbers of workers from outside the region to meet the skill demand.  Speaking about local labour Justin Fung says,

“Obviously we will have a management team and we need Mandarin and Cantonese speakers … but we remain dedicated to improving the employment rate in Cairns.”   

This means that the front of house staff will need to be Chinese.  In recent months, the Federal Government has been trying to negotiate a free trade deal with China.  In order to clinch the deal, it is willing to consider visa options for skilled workers to come to Australia to work on major Chinese projects.  The free trade deal will certainly benefit Tony Fung if he wishes to use Chinese workers.

But the biggest bone of contention for many is the casino itself.  Does Cairns really need two more casinos? The social impacts of these mega casino in a city which already has high levels of problem gambling have not been adequately explored.  Per capita, Cairns is Queensland’s highest spending pokie city, with the average resident spending $45.41 per month on pokies in 2012.  Those behind Aquis, including the Newman government, insist that the casino will be frequented mostly by wealthy Asian tourists and that negative community impacts will be minimal.

But the Productivity Commission found that high rollers only count for 11% of revenue in casinos, with the rest coming from locals playing cards and pokies.  In addition, studies have proven that big pokies venues are the most dangerous to local communities.

The debate is growing outside of the Far North, with recent national and even international coverage with amusing headlines like, “Hippie Town Seen as New Macau With World’s Biggest Hotel”.   It has also drawn many prominent anti-gambling advocates into the fray.  World Vision CEO Tim Costello, who is also the Chairman of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, has called the plans madness saying,

Their business model, because they’re never up front about it, is always heavily reliant on local custom.”  

South Australian Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, has also lent his vocal support to the growing campaign against Aquis.  On June 20th, he will speak at a community forum hosted by Aquis Aware, warning locals of the “fools gold” that is Aquis and the dangers of a gambling resort.

The dream of Aquis has an undeniable lure, especially for those who have been hit hard over the past few years.  It has the potential to change the face of Cairns forever, but I fear it won’t be for the better.

All that glitters is not gold.

If you want to voice your opposition to this mega casino, you can sign the petition: www.communityrun.org/p/StopReefCasino

This article was first published in Kate’s Enviro Blog.

Also by Kate O’Callaghan:

Abbott’s International Tour de Farce


23 comments

  1. John921Fraser

    <

    As an aside it should be noted that newman said in an ABC radio today (17/6/14) that going by the "Letters to the Editor" in the Courier Mail (Murdoch) people in Queensland were on his government's side in relation to his appointment of Carmody to the position of Chief Justice of Queensland.
    http://www.independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/here-we-joh-again-carmody-promotion-a-throwback-to-terry-lewis,6580
    <
    Government by the Murdoch "Letters to the Editor" shows just how fcuked Queenslanders are getting.

  2. Ruth Lipscombe

    Thanks for this wide ranging overview.
    I struggle to see any long term benefits for Cairns and absolutely none for the natural environment.
    How much longer do we have to put up with Nauseous Newman ruining our life style?

  3. Kaye Lee

    I was in Cairns with my daughter about 18 months ago to go diving on the reef. She had never been to a casino so we went during the day. It was such a sad place that we didn’t even sit down let alone place a bet. In the middle of the day there were very ordinary looking people – locals, not tourists – sitting on their own at blackjack tables and poker machines.

    From the government’s own website:

    •Australians spent more than $19 billion on gambling in 2008-09; around $12 billion of which was spent playing the pokies.
    • Up to 500,000 Australians are at risk of becoming, or are, problem gamblers.
    •The social cost to the community of problem gambling is estimated to be at least $4.7 billion a year.
    •The actions of one problem gambler negatively impacts the lives of between five and 10 others. This means there are up to five million Australians who could be affected by problem gambling each year, including friends, family and employers of people with a gambling problem.
    •Only around 15 per cent of problem gamblers seek help.
    •One in six people who play the pokies regularly has a serious addiction.
    •Problem gamblers lose around $21,000 each year. That’s one third of the average Australian salary.
    •Some poker machines can be played at extremely high intensity – a gambler could lose more than $1,500 in just one hour.
    •Young people (18-24 year olds) spend more on poker machines than any other age group. Many adult problem gamblers report having developed gambling problems during their teenage years
    •Three-quarters of problem gamblers have problems with poker machines. It’s even higher for women – in 9 out of 10 cases poker machines are identified as the cause of problems for women
    •Problem gamblers are six times more likely to be divorced than non problem gamblers
    •Problem gamblers are four times more likely to have problems with alcohol and four times as likely to smoke daily than non problem gamblers
    •Children with parents who are problem gamblers are up to 10 times more likely to become problem gamblers themselves than children with non gambling parents

    http://www.problemgambling.gov.au/facts/

    There has also been a report from the Victorian coroner attributing almost 130 suicides and two murders to gambling

    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/20/gambling-addiction-suicides-victoria

  4. corvus boreus

    “Can-do” Newman obviously suffer suffers no analysis paralysis, he feels contemplation of costs and collateral damage are tedious distractions, hence his aversion to protocols like Environmental Impact Studies/statements.
    His fishgob once mouthed the memorable phrase;”I’m not really into plans and studies”.
    I cringed to imagine the consequences had he practically applied this lazy attitude to his past military job as a commander of men.
    Before a mission they undertake studies. It’s called reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.
    They then formulate a plan. It’s called operational planning.
    It prevents things like mass frontal infantry assaults on prepared positions, through mines and wire, which is generally a losing gamble, with a bloody cost in human flesh and souls.
    Maybe Campbell was sick the week they covered ‘reconnaisance, intelligence and operational planning’ at Military Academy.
    Just as well he’s now only got the responsibility of the premiership of a state.

  5. Ben

    This country is one big joke and the so call males who are running it, they all need stringing up by their balls, see how they like being squeezed, and kicked below the belt, it’s a poor joke on this country and only the LNP voters are the winners. I avoid lib voters now, they can rot in hell, they are two bob capitalists born with 2 heads

  6. Mike Stasse

    Greed knows no bounds. This is what happens when we convert from a society to an economy. Nothing else matters but bloody money…….

  7. John921Fraser

    <

    It should also be noted that newman recently removed the law that pokies could only accept $20 notes not $50 or $100 notes.
    Now revenue for both the government and clubs/hotels & casinos has risen.
    No extra money was put aside for problem gamblers or the "charities" who have to deal with people who have lost their money.

  8. Matters Not

    Those behind Aquis, including the Newman government, insist that the casino will be frequented mostly by wealthy Asian tourists and that negative community impacts will be minimal.

    But the Productivity Commission found that high rollers only count for 11% of revenue in casinos, with the rest coming from locals playing cards and pokies.

    Every casino built in Australia was based on the (vain) hope that the wealthy tourists would flock to our shores. Soon after opening, the ‘internationals’ disappear from the language and it falls on the locals to gamble away mainly via the ‘pokies’.

    The BS used to promote Cairns is the same used to justify a new Casino on the Broadwater at Southport.

  9. John921Fraser

    <

    And to justify Barangaroo Sydney).
    By the Packers …. biggest single donation to the Liberals in 2013.

  10. Jeanette Lewis

    Has nothing been learnt when the Japanese also flooded into Cairns and Gold Coast, flew in on JAL, bussed around in Japanese owned vehicles, went to Japanese shops etc. The average Chinese are wary of Anglo’s, as observed in Venice (I might add to the obvious disgust of local Italian waiter), wearing masks, hustled in their hundreds as my friend and I gaped in wonder, by Chinese agents, Chinese owned Gondolas! nothing is to be gained for the local economy. Chinese staff will be employed at poverty rates. Local employment ? well maybe a gardener or 2. While I love places like Singapore, where the locals love to rave about the boat on top of the hotel & man made gardens, why try copy this and Dubai? No, I say stick to promoting our natural wonders to the USA and Europe.

  11. Matters Not

    Yes John, and Packer is promoting the nonsense that his Barangaroo project will not rely on ‘pokies’. promises, promises, promises.

  12. Kaye Lee

    Casinos are not unique…the Reef, the Daintree, Tasmanian forests, our wildlife, Sydney Harbour…THEY are unique. Tourists come to see our wonders and enjoy our climate….not to sit in front of a poker machine.

  13. Kaye Lee

    ahhhhh yes…..Barangaroo

    Crown’s Barangaroo project – for which it must get permission to increase the height from the 170 metres approved for a hotel on the site to about 235 metres – is still subject to approval. However, the highly stage-managed announcement, less than two weeks after Crown announced the three final designs up for assessment, is part of a process to make the development appear a fait accompli and divert attention from the question of whether it should be built at all, some critics say.

    “Rather than protecting the public interest, successive governments have allowed private interests to gain primacy in determining the re-configuration of this major site. This is occurring again: encroachment on areas previously public, renegotiation of heights, questionable uses, disregard for previous masterplans, no public consultation and proposals so unconscious of their context they may as well be in Dubai.”

    http://www.brw.com.au/p/professions/it_james_packer_vs_architects_on_SJFI6qDhuc77pSeHAXYpvN

  14. Margaret-Rose Stringer

    Campbell Newman is an obscenity – a true blot on our landscape.

  15. Kaye Lee

    Mr Packer is the executive chairman of Crown Resorts, which owns one-third of Melco Crown Entertainment. Melco owns two casinos in Macau and is building another. Its joint venture partner is Melco Group, which is owned by Lawrence Ho, the son of casino magnate Stanley Ho.

  16. Terry2

    Kaye

    I live in the Cairns area (Atherton Tablelands) and recently took a visitor to see the Cairns’ sights and we took a short-cut through the casino precinct from Abbott Street to the Esplanade: she hadn’t seen a casino before so we had a walk around. I agree with you, it was a sad and somewhat creepy experience with mainly bored locals punting their money away in a gloomy and seedy atmosphere – evidently the tourists were all out on the reef and I was assured that the pace would pick up later that night.

    A new casino at Yorkey’s Knob is the last thing that Cairns needs but the Newman regime has no class.. Amusingly, in an act of delicacy for which developers are not usually known, they tried to change the name to Yorkey’s Promontory as they considered ‘Knob’ was problematical and not in line with the image they were promoting, but the locals wouldn’t have it .

  17. John921Fraser

    <

    L. Ho and Packer are close friends as well as business partners.

  18. Hotspringer

    I think I can see Camp Bell’s reasoning, after all, once dredging and dumping on the reef starts, the nature-loving tourists will stay away in droves. Besides, anything that makes prostitution affordable to the average age pensioner has to be a plus.

  19. Deena Bennett

    Is this the very best that our highly paid and highly self opinionated leaders can do? Another Casino. Where is the vision, where is the forward thinking, where is the innovation so eloquently talked about by these scions of society. Where is the future for our youth in these places? Where are the skills and crafts that will allow Australians to march through the twenty first century with confidence and hope?
    Or is this just another scam by the leaders to get their foot in the door, filtering of a percentage of the black money that will be brought there?
    I have visited a few of the casinos in Macau, and a more sad, depressing, and culturally devoid group of buildings I have never come across. All the gloss and glitter turns to dross when you observe the faces of the customers.

  20. Anomander

    This tale is not much different to the government in NSW. All our governments are completely addicted to the trickle of revenue they gain from gambling, and from the wads of cash splashed on their campaigns by the pubs/clubs/gambling lobby. They conveniently ignore the externalities and social costs of gambling, instead preferring to cite the trite old phrase that “people should be responsible for themselves”.

    Funny how we pass restrictive laws for driving and other activities and even impose punitive measures for non-compliance with these laws that cause far less damage than gambling does. Yet when it comes to something as utterly destructive as gambling, they are happy to turn a blind-eye because it generates revenue.

    Having watched the recent Packer debacle with the Barranagaroo development here in Sydney, the benefits of these evil edifices are always grossly exaggerated. We always hear the fabled catch-cry that they will bring-in revenue and enormous flow-on benefits for the whole community, but never seem to fulfil any of the promises.

    The Packer casino at Barrangaroo, just across the cove from an existing casino, is being set-up to cater exclusively at the supposed “Asian Whales”. Enormously wealthy Chinese gamblers who will be flown in and driven directly into the casino, having no interaction with local businesses or people, apart from a few low-paid workers employed at the casino itself and of course the politicians who clearly copped some nice backhanders for their acquiescence.

    If you haven’t guessed already – I detest them and I fail to see how our community benefits in any way from these massive developments. They will simply act as a means for these alleged gamblers, or more likely – criminal organisations, to launder vast amounts of their ill-gotten gains, with the government taking a tiny slice to turn a blind-eye.

    As a non-gambler, I’ve only visited two casinos in my lifetime, out of sheer curiosity, but will never go there again. I found them sad, sorry places devoid of any joy, style or class, slapped with tacky pasted-on glitter and glitz and filled with glass-eyed individuals staking their life savings, desperately pursuing a win that will never ever come.

    I often consider how many billions of dollars are effectively squandered in these establishments (clubs and the gambling agencies included) by stupid people trying to chase the big win, and this thought disturbs me deeply.

    Imagine if we were somehow able to divert these funds into productive activities and expenditure, to be spent on families, children, education, health initiatives, infrastructure, goods, services, local businesses and circulating through the economy, generating tens of thousands of jobs and supporting our whole society, rather than lining the pockets of the crude, criminal billionaire scumbags that run them.

    For the waste and damage they do to our society they should all be outlawed.

  21. trevor

    Casinos. A license to print money and bugger the consequences.

    Stupidity knows no bounds when a flashy billonaire comes to town with his proposal to print money.. The elected roll over , line up their mates and grateusously make known how for a future of rolled gold the signatures are all lined up and another community gets it where the sun don’t shine.

    Capitalism depends on socialising the losses.

    Export Abbott not Refugees

  22. Paul Raymond Scahill

    It never fails to astound me how so few can actually believe the B.S., about casinos and there benefit to thier respective communities. Having lived on the Gold Coast for some 28 years, I think I saw all the winners (count then on one hand) these same winners could not help themselves and usually turned up at Jupiters within about 5 days to lose their winnings, and also what they brought with them additional to their so-called winnings. Yes, Casinos are fantastic, for owners and share-holders, but they are not constructed for the losers who conglomerate at these glitzy venues. I am far from being a prude and am not a winner nor a loser, in fact I would consider myself a big winner as I looked around at the sad faces of the “winners” who frequented these establishments before deciding that they were only built for owners et al, and the undesirable element who frequent these establishments. After a short time most people only go for the so-called entertainment or to eat!

  23. Peter Wood

    Vote them out!

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