Troubled island to entice tourists

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2007, 12:00am

It has been rated the most dangerous place in the world outside a war zone, a tropical island ravaged by alcoholism, riots and racial tension.

But the Aboriginal inhabitants of Palm Island, off the coast of Queensland, believe they can transform their home land from a place of notoriety to a holiday paradise.

The enterprising residents want to junk the island's image of dysfunction and despair and entice tourists with horse treks, Aboriginal artwork, snorkeling, swimming and second world war wrecks.

One of Australia's largest indigenous communities, Palm Island is just 57km and a two-hour ferry ride from the coastal city of Townsville, but until now tourism has been virtually non-existent.

The 64-sq-km island boasts palm-fringed bays, rainforest and crystal-clear waters, but outsiders have been intimidated by its chronic social problems.

Unemployment among its 3,500 residents runs at 90 per cent. The number of murders and suicides was so high that in 1999 the island was ranked by Guinness World Records as the planet's most dangerous place outside a combat zone.

'You mention Palm Island to people and they think of riots and violence,' said Pauline Shortjoe, an islander who is planning to set up a horse trekking venture. 'But it's a beautiful place, very calm and peaceful. We need to get away from that bad image.'

Mrs Shortjoe and her husband Shaun plan to round up some of the island's 300 wild horses, tame them and take tourists on treks across the mountainous atoll, camping in the hills and swimming in the sea.

Visitors would be able to see wartime-era Catalina flying boat wrecks and swim with manta rays.

'We want to have everything set up by December, and open up from January. All of it would be Aboriginal-run,' Mrs Shortjoe said.

Palm Island was wracked by violence in 2004 when hundreds of locals stormed its police station and burnt the barracks and courthouse in protest at the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody.

Cameron Doomadgee, 36, was found dead in his cell with four broken ribs and a ruptured liver that was almost torn in two. An autopsy put the cause of death down to an awkward fall, a decision which outraged islanders and raised suspicion of police brutality and a cover-up.

'There's a stigma, that this is the most violent place outside a war zone, but we are trying to change that image,' said Barry Moyle, the chief executive of the island council, who was due to hold talks yesterday with Queensland government officials about developing tourism.

Palm Island has had an unhappy past. Named by Captain James Cook in 1770, it was used first as a leper colony and then, from 1918, as a penal settlement for Aborigines considered to be troublemakers.

Drawn from more than 45 separate tribes, they were forcibly removed from the mainland and placed in church-run 'missions'.

Since then the community has been beset by chronic drug and alcohol abuse, poor diet, domestic violence and overcrowding.