01/07/2020 - 10:22

Resort plan a conversation starter

01/07/2020 - 10:22


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The recent announcement of Margaret River’s first five-star resort has evoked a strong reaction from locals and businesses in the region.

Resort plan a conversation starter
An artist’s impression of the proposed Westin Margaret River Resort and Spa. Image: Tourism WA

It was no surprise to hear Mark McGowan enthuse that Marriott International’s proposed hotel development at Gnarabup, announced earlier this month, was an extremely positive sign for tourism in Western Australia.

After all, with Australia in its first recession for 30 years and COVID-19 travel bans hurting the sector, what better way to declare confidence in a brighter future than for an international luxury chain to announce plans for a 120-room, five-star resort: the Westin Margaret River Resort and Spa?

Not that the premier’s enthusiasm is an outlier by any means, but the reaction from others in the South West (and beyond) has been mixed, despite the region’s economy being so heavily dependent on tourism.

Shortly after the proposal was announced, Mandurah resident Katie Rowe set up an online petition, which at the time of print holds about 15,000 signatures.

Local group ‘Preserve Gnarabup’ was formed to lobby against the proposed construction, with an aim to: “Preserve and protect our pristine coastline and have the area rezoned as nature reserve”.

According to group spokesperson Beth Carlessi, Preserve Gnarabup has drawn support across a range of demographics and is in the process of enlisting specialist advice and support.

“Group members feel that the development of our wild and raw coastline goes against the wishes of many people in the community and the sense of place that community members feel here in the area,” Ms Carlessi told Business News.

The group’s concerns include the development’s possible impact on the area’s ecosystem and current facilities in the region, such as sewerage and road access.

Restrictions to access by local groups, and the visual impact of the development are other issues the group has raised.

Margaret River Coastal Residents Association president Adrian Wilson said the lack of community consultation was a problem, and the area’s zoning was out of step with changes to the coast.

“We feel the land is unsuitable for the proposed development,” Mr Wilson said.

“This land was zoned 26 years ago when there was a different set of circumstances on the coast. Now, with definite climate change, there is severe beach erosion at Gnarabup.

“Since then, the population of Margaret River has increased a lot. With this being one of the only safe swimming spots, it’s popular not only for visitors but for all the residents. In summer you can’t get a parking spot.

“It’s under a lot of pressure already; [this is] an exclusive sort of grab on a very sensitive piece of land that is so close to the beach.”

Margaret River Busselton Tourism Association joint chief executive Steve Harrison said he understood local residents’ perspective, but saw an opportunity to make the development a positive for the area.

“I think it is human nature to say ‘I’d rather this didn’t happen here’, and to focus attention on additional development rather than the existing residential development that has already occurred and in which they reside,” Mr Harrison told Business News.

“It’s a natural reaction, but it’s one that only looks at one part of that area’s coastal development.

“It’s understandable that when people get to a really nice place they want to protect it and don’t want it to change from the day they arrived.”

However, Mr Harrison said change was necessary, and the development of a five-star resort on the beachfront would actually help preserve the environment.

“Our priority at the tourism association is to try and attract fewer, yet higher-spending visitors, who will have an overall lesser impact on the region and have higher expenditure,” he said.

“I’d rather have half as many people spending twice as much.

“The cape region is fortunate that the majority of our coast is national park, it is protected and will remain so. However, it puts an increased level of pressure on those few enclaves where you can get to the coast which isn’t national park.”

Mr Harrison sought to allay concerns about services and amenities, expressing his confidence all processes and procedures would be followed.

“I work on the principle that those things have to be done properly [sewerage etc] and if they are not, I don’t think anybody would support it. The authorities wouldn’t allow an amateur development to happen,” he said.

Lee Burkett, who manages the nearby Margaret’s Beach Resort, said he welcomed some friendly competition, provided all the approvals were in place and environmental protections considered.

“As far as being the neighbour over the road, I think it is the best thing that could happen,” Mr Burkett told Business News.

“We live in the most sought-after holiday destination in WA, and we don’t have this five-star experience in Margaret River.

“There are a lot of wealthy people who will pay top dollar to stay in a five-star establishment where they have 24-hour service and beautiful, uninterrupted views of the ocean.

“This will bring another 240 people to Margaret River who probably wouldn’t otherwise come.”

Among other voices of support for the Gnarabup development is Business Events Perth chief executive officer Gareth Martin, who said it would serve to draw a visitor cohort beyond leisure tourists.

“The addition of new accommodation, meeting and event space increases the region’s capacity to attract business event visitors from interstate and overseas, who spend up to five times more than leisure visitors,” he said.

“Interstate and international business tourism, including conferences, meetings and incentive trips, are an important part of WA’s economy, generating $153 million for the local economy in 2018-2019.”

While it is undeniable that the proposed resort will encourage business tourism, some opponents of the plans argue that it would be more suitably located elsewhere.

Community-based anthropologist Jinni Wilson has lived in the region for almost 40 years, operating her own heritage-based eco-tourism business.

“A five-star resort is great, we want to attract high-end tourism … but it’s got to be done wisely,” Ms Wilson told Business News.

“There is nature, and then there is wine and food. Why not build a resort at the wineries that accommodates both?

“Another concern is that to be sustainable it really needs a mandate from the community. And at the moment it is pretty clear, and has been for a couple of decades, that people think it is inappropriate to put hotels there.

“If it is going to go ahead, we want to make sure it is absolutely the best possible quality that you can get.”


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