Scientific Game

Gambling on the Barrier Reef

Who is Tony Fung? … And why does he want to spend $4 billion in Yorkeys Knob?

Monday, 19 August 2013 17:25
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James Packer is spending every dollar and pushing every lever he can to bring more Chinese to Australia. But Tony Fung isn’t quite who he had in mind.

The 61-year-old Mr Fung, billionaire scion of one of Hong Kong’s best-known banking families, is dug into the economic fabric of the state of Queensland as few Australians are. He owns two luxury homes in the Noosa Hinterland, a cattle farm at Mount Garnet, a wagyu beef-breeding business in Innisfail and a sugar cane plantation on the Atherton Tablelands. And he’s only begun to make his biggest pitch yet—an A$4.2 billion gaming and entertainment mini-city called Aquis Resort at the Great Barrier Reef, a “man-made wonder of the world,” as he describes it, that would dwarf anything they’ve ever seen Down Under, including Mr Packer’s trumpeted Crown Sydney.

He’s purchased an option through a local company he controls on about 300 hectares of farmland some 13 kilometers north of Cairns in a seaside hamlet called Yorkeys Knob. Here he wants to build five hotels totaling 3,750 rooms, 1,335 apartments and luxury villas, a golf course, a 25,000-seat sports stadium, two additional theaters, 13,500 square meters of high-end retail, a lake and a reef lagoon and one of the world’s largest aquariums.

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Aquis, says Hong Kong financier Tony Fung,will “drive Asian tourism awareness of north Queenslandand the Great Barrier Reef”and provide the state “an opportunity to fend offits southern and regional competitors for the increasinglyimportant Chinese tourism market.”

 

The “international class” casino—targeting wealthy Chinese, of course—would be larger than Mr Packer’s flagship Crown Melbourne. Initial plans call for 750 table games and 1,500 slot machines.

He’s shooting for a 2018 opening.

“I have recognised the unique suitability of the Cairns region to develop an integrated resort, based upon the Macau model,” he said in an open letter accompanying the proposal.

Aquis, he said, will “drive Asian tourism awareness of north Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef,” and provide the state “an opportunity to fend off its southern and regional competitors for the increasingly important Chinese tourism market.”

“Our goal is to introduce a whole new generation of Australian and international visitors to Cairns and far north Queensland and get them coming back for more.”

Government, not surprisingly, appears to be enamored of the idea and of Mr Fung, a son of one of the founders of Sun Hung Kai & Co., a former chairman of SHKI Group and the man credited with building the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. They especially like the part about the 9,000 construction jobs and 10,000 full-time positions once the resort is open (the Aquis Web site claims 26,700 jobs are possible) and is reported to have streamlined the review process by declaring it a “coordinated project,” which means officials will look in full at the plan, enabling Mr Fung to avoid seeking separate approvals for different parts of the proposal.

“It has the potential to provide significant economic benefits for Cairns and the Queensland economy as a whole,” said Queensland Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney.

Cairns is home to one gaming venue already, the Reef Hotel Casino, owned by Reef Casino Trust, but its exclusive license expired a few years ago. In any event, Mr Fung, with 15 years of Queensland investment experience under his belt and holdings that include shopping malls, residential and commercial property and real estate in China and the United States, has timed his proposal at a juncture when foreign tourism has become a policy priority of the states and the federal government. It brought $41 billion into Australia last year, accounting for 3% of gross domestic product. The 16% drop in the dollar since April makes the country even more attractive, and Asians, the country’s largest contingent of visitors, are the primary focus, and in particular the Chinese, the country’s fastest-growing source of inbound tourism.

It’s why down on New South Wales Central Coast another Chinese businessman is pushing a $500 million theme park complete with a replica of the Forbidden City and a nine-story temple housing a giant Buddha. It’s how Mr Packer was able to ram Crown Sydney past Echo Entertainment’s monopoly in New South Wales, a running battle for Asia’s gamblers that now has the rivals fighting over Queensland’s Gold Coast, where Echo holds a tenuous monopoly in Brisbane, the capital of the state and its largest city.

The state government back in March approved a fairly expansive oceanfront development called Great Keppel Island, priced at $600 million and featuring a hotel, apartments and villas, a marina and a golf course.

Aquis is going to be a tougher sell. Cairns Mayor Bob Manning says it will encourage badly needed investment in the region. “It will make us an international destination again,” said Barron River MP Michael Trout. As a boat club manager in the city put it, “You’ve got massive unemployment in the region, people have got no hope and you’ve got a declining tourism industry.”

Mr Fung says the project will have no impact on the Great Barrier Reef. But the Australian Marine Conservation Society has reservations. “Alarming,” is what spokeswoman Felicity Wishart calls it. “The concerns that we would have are about the size, the scale and the location as it is on the coast.”

Anna McGuire of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre said, “It will be a very significant challenge to do a development of that scale without having impacts on the reef.”

It’s difficult to know what folks in Yorkeys Knob think, although Jim Cadman, reigning “King of the Knob,” a community-elected post, derides the project as “ludicrous“.

“Most people are completely blown away and amazed that such a development could happen in such a pristine environmental area,” he said. “It just seems like no one’s done any homework. We’ve got beach erosion concerns, we’ve got environmental fishery concerns, we’ve got flood mitigation concerns.”

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The state is promising a “comprehensive assessment” that includes an environmental impact study and analyses of the potential social and economic impacts overseen by the Coordinator- General’s Office.

“I only seek investment certainty from an approval process,” said Mr Fung, who is reported to be privately lobbying Premier Campbell Newman and senior ministers for their support and is preparing a formal presentation to the government next month. Reports are this will include detailed renderings and architectural concepts and costs-benefits analyses addressing the environmental, social and economic issues.

“The largely undeveloped nature of Yorkeys Knob and its proximity to the Cairns airport provides an incredible opportunity to create an integrated tourism facility that puts the city on the global stage,” he said. “We want to create a new jewel in the Australian tourism crown and provide a trigger for the emergence of Cairns as a globally recognised destination.”

The city is “the jewel,” he added. “It just needs a little polish.”

Mr Cadman promises him a fight. “You’re not coming up against people in beach shacks, you’re coming up against a highly organized bunch of people who love their township and like it the way it is, and we haven’t been consulted.”

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“You’re not coming up against people in beach shacks,you’re coming up against a highly organized bunch ofpeople who love their township and like it the way it is, andwe haven’t been consulted.”— “King of the Knob” Jim Cadman

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