All eyes on tranquil islands
Chinese buyers interested in Whitsundays as owners slash prices, writes Peta Tomlinson
Australia's Whitsundays are famously home to 74 islands, according to the tourism mantra. David Colfelt, author of the cruising guide 100 Magic Miles, says it's more like 150, if you count the picturesque islets and rocks.
Indisputably, the island group, named after British explorer James Cook sailed through there on Whit Sunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter) in 1770, is pure magic. With its subtropical climate similar to Fiji's, picture-postcard beaches, including the white silica Whitehaven Beach and balmy, aquamarine waters, it's no wonder this Queensland archipelago is one of Australia's biggest drawcards.
In today's economic climate, it's also a place to buy cut-price real estate. Original price tags on some of the Whitsunday island properties have been "slashed", according to agents on the ground, who say that the downturn in a sector, which has been termed as "trophy" property, began even before the economic crisis.
Even in the good times, islands do turn over every couple of years, says Richard Vanhoff, a Gold Coast-based island specialist at Coldwell Banker Real Estate - not because the dream wears off, but because, as families evolve and partnerships change, it is sometimes just time to move on. "Most people love their islands and are very sad to see them go," he says.
And not just in Australia, it seems. London's Daily Mail reported on a number of private islands "languishing" on the market worldwide, claiming that the number of isles for sale has jumped threefold since 2006.
However, Farhad Vladi, founder of Vladi Private Islands, disputes reports that owners of private islands are jumping ship. He agrees that the cycle of this property sector does ebb and flow, but says that the pairing of privacy-seeking celebrities and islands "is here to stay".
To that end, most of the Whitsunday islands offer the desired solitude, Vanhoff says. "Most islands are leasehold ranging from 20-year tenures to 100-year perpetual leases. All leases are generally renewable with the respective state governments and have proven to be excellent purchases and family investments. Most islands are private and offer owner solitude and comfort for personal and company benefit."
Given the number of Chinese visitors of late, surpassing the British to now be Australia's second largest tourism market, after New Zealand, it is not surprising that their attention is also turning to these serene, idyllic and arguably bargain-priced island properties.
The first deal was officially sealed this year when Chinese investors, led by William Han, chairman of advertising group White Horse Australia Holdings, bought Lindeman Island. The sale price was widely reported as A$12 million (HK$98.02 million), but it has been suggested that it was closer to A$9.5 million.
Lindeman is a disused resort, formerly owned by Club Med, which closed its only Australian property in January this year. The new owners say they are reviewing options for a revamp.
Paul Nyholt and Wayne Bunz, of CBRE Hotels, which negotiated the sale, say they had fielded more than 200 inquiries for the island asset before it was sold.
Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels also had interest from Chinese investors when it was marketing Dunk and Bedarra islands in 2009, which eventually sold for A$11.5 million and A$10 million, respectively, to a Swiss-based group.
"Not long after, the properties were severely damaged by a major cyclone," says Peter Harper, senior vice-president, Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. "The closed-down assets were then sold at large discounts to their acquisition cost by the owner to Peter Bond and Charlton Hotels respectively. They both intend to redevelop and reopen the properties."
Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels also sold Heron and Wilson islands (A$7.5 million), Brampton Island (A$5.9 million) and Lizard Island (A$10 million) in 2009, and Fitzroy Island (A$7.85 million) in 2010. All except the now-closed Brampton Island "continue to run successfully under the same owners", Harper says.
Apart from the Lindeman Island sale, Vanhoff says he is negotiating another two island property deals with Chinese nationals. These have resulted from "many" visits to Hong Kong and the mainland of late, because that's where the inquiries are coming from, he says.
"The only active international interest we've got at the moment is from Asia," Vanhoff says. It used to be from United States and UAE-based investors, but in the past six months the firm has had just one e-mail from Dubai, and one from India - the rest have come from Asia.
Not all the Whitsunday islands are resort properties. Apart from Daydream Island (open to offers, but previously listed at A$63 million), Coldwell Banker has for sale the resort island of South Molle (A$30 million), but it also has Temple Island, where you can own the only home on the island (for A$850,000), a four-unit bed and breakfast on Victor Island for A$1.95 million, and a three-island parcel known as the Duke Group, comprising Marble Island, Hunter Island and Tynemouth Island, (for A$12 million), among others.
The prices, it seems are very negotiable. "Owners of island properties are ready to do deals," Vanhoff says.
What you can buy for A$60 million (HK$490 million)
Daydream Island resort and spa. Boasting the world's largest man-made coral reef lagoon, the 296-room refurbished Whitsunday resort measures just 1km in length and 400 metres at its widest point.
What you can buy for A$850,000 (HK$6.94 million)
Temple Island, south of Mackay. This 8.68-hectare island with great views and beautiful beaches comes with a four-bedroom high-set home, private airstrip, a 1986 Range Rover and a four-metre boat.