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Could Cairns be the Next Macau?

Publishing: June 10, 2014

Hong Kong developer Tony Fung has a vision of the small northern Australian city of Cairns that is somewhat at odds with its current reputation as a place of natural beauty often frequented by backpackers and nature lovers; Fung envisions the city being transformed into the next Macau by the end of the decade.

Nor is Fung just spewing grand dreams, he’s actually putting his money where his dreams are; and a lot of it. The Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort project he’s spearheading recently took a major step towards being launched into official development status, with the news that it was set to acquire a gaming license pending final inspections and approvals by several agencies, which are expected to go through.

The Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort would be a monumental $AU8.15 billion project residing on an old sugarcane plantation. The resort would eventually house an 18-hole golf course, as many as 8 hotelrs boasting a whopping 7,500 rooms, 2 casinos, a 25,000 seat stadium, an artifical lake and island, and all many of shops, amenities, and attractions around the resort.

Fung first attraction to the site is that nature reserve feel and proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. He has a particular vision of the burgeoning Chinese middle class making Cairns their travel destination of choice given the stunning nature alongside the resort itself. The Chinese tourism market is one Australia has for years sought to start tapping into in greater numbers, with them currently pulling in less than 4% of Chinese travel dollars. The majority of those still go to Europe, where the culture, history, and shopping are seen as major draws.

Others question the merit of the project however, and wonder if enough tourists will flock to the resort to justify building it, and moreover, if the currently laidback lifestyle of Cairns should be toppled in favor of transforming it into a tourist mecca. To the former point, a survey of international travelers by Tourism Australia has found that heritage, nature and unspoilt wilderness ranked at the top of the list of interests when it came to the country, while casinos, bars, and nightlife ranked near the bottom. Still, it could be that additional incentive to come for one or the other will help drive international tourism to the region.

There is growing competition in the Asia-Pacific casino industry, with new resorts planned for the Phillipines, Sri Lanka, Japan, and South Korea, in addition to the two successful resorts in Singapore, which have eaten into Australia’s casino industry. However the Aquis would dwarf them all, and in fact would be bigger than the two Singapore resorts combined, and may even become bigger than the Great Barrier Reef itself and drawing tourists. The first stage of its development is planned to be completed in 2018.