Airlie Beach reveals a smart makeover

20:56, Dec 05 2013
Airlie Beach
AIRLIE BEACH: This backpacker haven in Queensland is all grown up.

You can still expect to buy snake bites and watch wet T-shirt comps, but backpacker haven Airlie Beach now offers something for the well-heeled tourist too.

The Whitsundays hub has had a $24.85 million makeover that's lifted the main street from Aussie drab to Hamptons cool.

Kevin Collins, councillor for tourism at Whitsunday Regional Council, says the revamp has created a great atmosphere in the town and enthusiasm among residents.

"Poor old Airlie's main street had been a bit of a running sore for a long time," he says.

"People are (now) coming and leaving with a better impression or feel of the whole town, and all the traders have got smiles on their faces and the chamber of commerce is fired up and excited."

Much of the funding, from local, state and federal governments, was spent on running the main street's power underground and improving storm water issues and drainage.


The rest went to beautifying projects, including a new road, footpaths, lighting and landscaping.

The overall facelift, which took about 18 months to complete, has helped link the centre of town and lagoon area to the new Port of Airlie.

Traffic can still travel through town at a reduced 30km/h speed limit, but trucks and buses heading to Shute Harbour and other suburbs can bypass, making the main street more pedestrian friendly.

Other changes include the area around Port of Airlie, with plans by cruise companies to relocate their operations and the building of a residential marina-front sub-development.

Airlie still retains its laid-back tropical charm, but now has a sprinkling of sophistication.

There's now, Collins says, a real village feel in Airlie, similar to Palm Cove in Far North Queensland and Noosa on the Sunshine Coast.

"It's kind of like small town attitudes and atmosphere with big town commerce, so that you can be here and be in business and employ people and generate income, success and wealth, but still walk down the main street and know every second person.

"The CBD now enhances the natural assets of the place," says Collins.

Like much of Queensland, tourism in Airlie Beach has been down for the past couple of years, and many shops have been vacant. But that's changing, with spaces being leased and new restaurants opening since the completion of the redevelopment in September.

Collins, who co-owns restaurant and rum bar Fish D'vine, is already recording an increase in business since the work was done, compared to figures from the previous year.

Tigerair Australia also announced in November it will start flying direct between Sydney and Whitsunday Coast (Proserpine) airports from April next year.

Despite all of these changes, backpackers still account for a large portion of Airlie's tourism market and that's a good thing.

"The backpacking industry is critically important to us," says Collins, "and it's international, so many of today's backpackers are four-star tourists in 10 years time and they will bring their family back to show them Australia.

"So we never want to lose that. If we didn't have them we wouldn't have the boating community infrastructure, 'cause they drive that."

Just as in many tourist hot spots the world over, backpackers in Airlie have started to change. The town is seeing the arrival of more flashpackers - basically upmarket backpackers who save costs on accommodation but spend on activities and dining.

"Gone are the days of jamming 10 in a bed bug-ridden room for eight bucks a night," says Collins.

Backpackers are on gap years from university and will now "pull out their dad's gold AMEX card to buy two mojitos at the rum bar".

"The mainstream tourists benefit from the fact the backpackers are here because they underpin so much of the economy."