I’d been toying over the last weekend with sending out an Ethos Travel mailshot for Christmas Island – it’s a destination that is pretty much exclusive to us in the UK, and as an Australian destination far removed from the bushfires, seemed a safe destination to push. Belated rains had delayed the world famous crab migration to January so many newspapers were picturing the island under a sea of red crabs, my social media was awash with huge numbers of whale sharks and crabs stealing coffee cups making it a great time to focus on the island.
But then, in-keeping with the island’s continuous run of poor luck, the Australian government decided to turn the island into a Coronavirus Quarantine Camp for Australians trapped in Wuhan, increasing the population overnight by 25% with 250+ unsolicited guests. Slightly more hysterically, The West Australian newspaper went with the clickbait headline ‘VIRUS ISLAND’ which must have confused and infuriated Christmas Island’s residents who would otherwise be largely unaware of their countryfolk arrivals, as they are kept isolated on the other side of the island well away from any settlements. There were also questions as to what would happen if any of those in isolation actually had Coronovirus – the island’s small hospital couldn’t treat them, so they’d have to be medivaced to Perth at a cost of over AUS$50,000. Why not just send them there in the first place? One thing Western Australia is not short of is space after all.
It felt like groundhog day in so many ways. Christmas Island had initially been a spot on the map I’d been keen to visit since I first noticed it on an Indonesia map travelling through Asia aged 11 years old. I’d seen the David Attenborough footage of him being overrun by 100 million crabs from The Trials of Life (“one of my top life experiences” he’d called it – and when Sir David says that, you listen), and through correspondence with stalwart Tourism Association Marketing Director Linda Cash I secured a 5 day trip through a new flight from Kuala Lumpur.
The timing was perfect. The islands casino, which had provided significant employment had closed down several years earlier, when the Asian stock market crash reverberated around the region, reducing the customer base almost overnight. The phosphate mine on the island (originally, unsurprisingly set up by the British) was seeing stocks run down, so a logical decision was made to promote Christmas Island as ‘Australia’s own Galapagos’. This was a prime eco-tourist destination. The number of red crabs had indeed been reduced to 40 million thanks to unwelcome crazy yellow ant invaders, but with the vast majority of the island a national park it was a stunning destination. Huge Coconut Crabs wander the beaches and the lack of predators meant it was easy to get close up to the islands endemic birdlife for amateurs to take incredible photos. The stunning underwater life can be reached from the main beach on Flying Fish Cove – just wander offshore for incredible coral and marine life (and at times, Whale Sharks), and then wander back onto the beach to tick off an Australian stereotype by sticking a shrimp on the barbie -handily provided for anyone to use.
Christmas Island was perfect – a small scale, eco-friendly destination that had something for everyone (except ‘luxury’ hotels, but the recent addition of Swell Lodge provides definitive exclusivity). Most importantly, it had the Christmas Island people, who were unabashedly warm & inquisitive. I didn’t have to buy a beer in any of the bars, I’d been interviewed on the island’s radio station, I’d drunk the excellent tax-free wine (when I’d worked out when the supermarket was open) and experienced the excellent facilities after an eye injury had left me in their hospital depriving me of the chance of any diving.
Despite the isolation, Christmas Island was now easy to reach – the closest part of Australia to the UK, and thanks to a once weekly flight from Asia, no need to add 9 hours unnecessary flying by routing via Perth. They say the greatest places are the hardest to reach – well this wasn’t the case with Christmas Island, for better and for worse.
For starters, on arrival I’d discovered my girlfriend had been taken into hospital in London. But there was no flight out for 5 days, and ships took weeks to reach the mainland. And of course, this meant the island was a target for asylum seekers – the easiest (but most perilous) way to reach Australia was via sea from Java. And indeed the day after Ethos Travel launched our Christmas Island Programme I’d found the largely unknown destination on the front of every newspaper and website after a tragic sinking of a boat full of asylum seekers captured on film from the porch of our main hotel.
Sadly, the island then became a pawn for Australia’s political parties as boat after boat of asylum seekers landed on the island, leading to the government to create a controversial policy of flying all ‘boat people’ to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, denying them the opportunity to apply for asylum in Australia. The toxicity of the situation was best highlighted during a random pint in a pub in Covent Garden. An Australian Human Rights Lawyer sitting on the table had overheard me discussing our problems with selling Christmas Island as a tourist attraction, which led to her venting at us for selling the destination as ‘inhumane’ whilst forgetting it is actually an Australian territory – and there are over 1,000 Christmas island inhabitants merely seeking to making a living having all these incredulous decisions about it’s future thrust upon it by decision makers 11 hours away in Canberra, literally half a world away. Often it is Australian’s themselves that have the most negative view of this incredible destination. Domestic tourism is minimal, marketing funding is regularly squeezed (being a territory rather than part of Western Australia means that large marketing spending largely passes Christmas Island by – even when expensive Kylie led campaigns are being run at huge costs whilst the news runs with Australia burning down.
However, the contentious re-homing strategy worked in that it stopped boat people arriving and the detention centre population dwindled to a Sri Lankan family of 4. A new dive centre was opened for guests of German based Extra Divers, Swell Lodge opened to huge positive coverage – no longer would we have to titillating press releases to get exposure – the island’s own natural beauty would see Christmas Island get the media coverage it needed and deserves – such as in this piece in the Daily Telegraph last weekend .
So forget about the brief Coronavirus inspired disruption to a very positive period for the island. If you need it re-iterated why you should go, read this comprehensive piece from Wanderlust journalist Martyn Symington – and you’ll start to realise why we, alongside David Attenborough and Brian Cox have fortunate enough to be enthralled by the joys of Christmas Island.
With additional thanks to Sue Warner & Lisa Preston for fact checking! We’d rather be keeping you busier with more UK clients in 2020!