Coinciding with the release of its Queensland Superyacht Strategy, replete with facts and stats on the industry’s billion dollar potential, the Queensland government is still working with industry to solve the impasse preventing superyachts from accessing the attractions of The Whitsundays and the Reef – legislation which bans boats over 35m from going any closer than 1.5km from its legendary beaches.
The postponement of the inaugural Hamilton Island Series has brought into sharp focus the impediments to these massive spending vessels visiting Queensland waters.
'The Queensland government and Tourism Australia spend millions advertising these amazing places, but when superyacht owners investigate coming downunder, they change their minds. It’s too hard,' says Rob Mundle, boating proponent, author and organiser of the aborted Hamilton Island Superyacht Series.
This past summer, there were several highly publicised reports of difficulties with mooring permits for superyachts on the Great Barrier Reef, including Italian fashion mogul, Giorgio Armani and the Crown Prince of Dubai, who are said to have ruled out extended stays on the Whitsundays because of these stringent superyacht regulations. Likewise many local superyacht owners are said to be considering relocating to The Med and US waters.
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'We need some common sense in the legislation,' continues Mundle. 'The Whitsundays is our answer to the Caribbean and we need to let these boats in to enjoy it. In the next 30 months, 371 superyachts will be built. 235 of them are over 30m, 51 are over 50m and 10 are over 100m. They are all looking for a new playground and it’s all here.'
Despite some murmurs that the regatta was postponed because organisers had received no confirmations, Mundle is adamant. 'That is absolute rubbish,' he says, adding that the event had attracted 'exceptionally good interest' from around the globe, including as many as five boats over 40m from New Zealand.
'The first two vessels to commit to the event were 40-metres in length, both from Grant Torrens on the Gold Coast. We received so many emails congratulating us on the concept, describing the regatta as the ‘best thing to promote superyachts in the southern hemisphere’ and telling us we had their support. We were expecting between 15 and 20 superyachts this first year. And we hadn’t even tapped the market. As soon as these issues started cropping up, we didn’t even put up entry forms on our website. We had to sort all this out first.'
As for environmental concerns, Mundle is quick to defend their intentions. 'It’s all low impact fun, not burning around the islands. We are not environmental vandals. We love the region and want to share it with visitors from around the world – visitors who will bring untold benefits to Queensland and Australia in terms of tourism, business and marine services. There’s nothing to lose.'
Ian & Andrea Treleaven
The southern hemisphere’s first annual superyacht regatta, conceived by Mundle and marine journalist Roger Lean-Vercoe during one Monaco Boat Show, was due to run 9-14 November this year, but has been postponed for 12 months due to government regulations that would impact some of the competing vessels.
'Over 80% of the world’s superyachts are motorboats and yet, there’s no event for them. We came up with a series of events, not racing, but fun activities around Hamilton. Then we realised that Federal government legislation that actually referred to large tourist ferries, also applied to superyachts. It means these boats can’t get closer than 1.5 to 2kms to beaches, which defeats the purpose of visiting.'
Hamilton Island CEO, Glenn Bourke says the Superyacht Series was established to lure some of the world’s largest and most spectacular private yachts to this magnificent cruising ground. 'It will also bring a direct benefit to the local superyacht industry as there is no doubt the owners of many of the yachts we will attract will consider spending millions of dollars on refitting their vessels while in Queensland waters.
'Additionally, the event sits perfectly within the Queensland Government’s recently announced Superyacht Industry Strategy as it will encourage local and international superyacht owners to come and cruise our equivalent of the Caribbean – The Whitsunday Islands.'
Queensland’s super yacht industry currently employs around 350 people and turned over about $125 million in the last financial year. This is expected to increase to more than 1000 employees and $500 million within the next five years.
According to some interpretations, superyachts and operators with their maximum capacity of 12 guests for overnight stays, are regulated as if they had a full capacity of 500 passengers. In many areas of the Great Barrier Reef, the 35 metre rules means vessels of that size have limited mooring facilities, whereas in other parts of the world, moorings are regulated by a vessel’s weight allowing far greater access for craft under 500 tonnes.
'That’s not actually the management arrangement,' states Lorelle Schluter, Acting Director of the Tourism & Recreation Group, GBRMPA. 'It’s our job to ensure the regulations provide for all the different groups and their styles of use in the region. All developmental plans are developed in consultation in cooperation with the community, industry and other users.'
As Schluter explains: 'Consultation involves taking in to account environmental concerns, conflict between users of the same area and the subjective aspect of amenity, or the looks of the area. For those people who want a resort style experience, we have outlined Setting 1 areas which allow all craft, including those greater than 70m with no group size limit. Then there are Setting 5 zones that are deemed restricted visitation. These are decided upon after lengthy consultation with all users of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.'
In other words, it’s not 'the government' or GBRMPA who hand down these restrictions, but a coalition of the broader marine industry and the local community, who voice their issues to special envoys from GBRMPA. These issues are then tabled at meetings organised for all stakeholders.
'We have to cater for a lot of other markets, not just one segment,' continues Schluter. 'As I understand it, other than Cairns and Hamilton Island it is difficult to get berths large enough for these vessels in the region. That is something that marina developers have to consider.
' But it is a chicken and egg situation. Something like that requires enormous investment. Developing a new sector involves ironing out a lot of issues through liaison with government agencies, the community and the interested stakeholders. It’s a case of pure democracy. This ironing out won’t happen overnight.'
GBRMPA is still open to continuing discussions with the organisers of the Hamilton Island Superyacht Series. 'We have put a lot of work into the charts and options for the event, so yes, of course, we’re keen to resume discussions.'
The author of the Queensland Superyacht Strategy document, the Department of Tourism, Regional Development & Industry, states that it is working with industry and GBRMPA to clarify ‘no go zones’ and open up the channels of communication, which a spokesperson says 'is the missing link here'.