Tony Fung, 61, billionaire scion of one of Hong Kong’s best-known banking families, is pitching officials of the Australian state of Queensland on 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.
He has purchased an option through a local company he controls on 300 hectares of farmland about 13 kilometers north of Cairns in a seaside hamlet called Yorkeys Knob. Plans call for five hotels at the site totaling 3,750 rooms and 1,335 apartments and luxury villas plus a golf course, a 25,000-seat sports stadium, two theaters, 13,500 square meters of high-end retail, a lake, a reef lagoon and one of the world’s largest aquariums.
The “international class” casino included in the plan, targeting wealthy Chinese, would be larger than James Packer’s flagship Crown Melbourne and will feature 750 table games and 1,500 slot machines.
He’s shooting for a 2018 opening.
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.”
Not surprisingly, state and local officials are intrigued. Fung has a sizable reputation as an investor and developer. He is credited with building the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and his extensive holdings in Queensland include a sugar cane plantation, a cattle farm and two mansions. They especially like his promise of 9,000 construction jobs and 10,000 full-time jobs once Aquis is open.
“It has the potential to provide significant economic benefits for Cairns and the Queensland economy as a whole,” said Queensland Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney.
Since opening earlier this month, more than 1,000 people have visited Aquis’ display in Cairns to find out more. A new Facebook page set up to promote the project has attracted some 1,800 “likes,” and Fung sent out his son Justin for a “solid week of engagement,” as his father calls it, with members of the Yorkeys Knob business community.
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.
“The feedback has been for the most part very positive and we’re encouraged,” the financier says, “but the work is just beginning.”
Indeed, Aquis won’t be an easy sell. Cairns Mayor Bob Manning says it will encourage badly needed investment in the region, but there are concerns about its impact on the Great Barrier Reef, an irreplaceable ecosystem that is one of the most beautiful and unique in the world, and some members of the local community are up in arms over it.
Fung downplays the environmental issues. But the Australian Marine Conservation Society has reservations.
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.”
Jim Cadman, reigning “King of the Knob,” a ceremonial post to which he was voted by Yorkeys Knob residents, 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 says. “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.”
Fung, meanwhile, is reported to be privately lobbying Queensland 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 studies addressing the issues.
The city is “the jewel,” he adds. “It just needs a little polish.”
Cadman is vowing 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.”