Chinese investors are looking to Australia for new tourism opportunities. However, the latest high-profile Chinese investment in Australia is unique, to say the least. The Wufu Investment Group has reportedly paid US$3 million (AU$4 million) for a former prison on French Island in the state of Victoria. The group plans on turning the compound into a resort for Chinese tourists.
The property was originally the McLeod Prison Farm from 1916 to 1976, a rehabilitation center for low-risk convicts, and sports a slaughterhouse, golf course, cricket pitch, and commercial kitchen. It had been used as an eco-village and cattle ranch previously. Most of these facilities are now in disrepair, but the 550-acre property has enough space for substantial additions and with renovations could be turned into an attractive getaway.
Wufu has provided few details of what their vision for the space is. However, the group has reportedly said that they intend to have at the compound “accommodation, hot springs, a museum, business center, and Chinese herb garden.” The company’s primary business interests appear to be primarily in the healthcare industry, including elder care and Chinese traditional and spiritual medicine, according to their English language website. They describe themselves on their primary, Chinese language website, as “a culturally driven investment group” and are “mainly focused on promoting healthy lives, disseminating the wisdom of Taiji, cultural tourism, public service, internet finance, the film and television industries, and the elder care industry.”
Given the island’s distance from China and the compound’s size and secluded location on French Island, it seems that some sort of luxury health resort for Chinese citizens, possibly elderly Chinese travelers, seems possible and fits within the company’s wide-ranging business focuses. Unfortunately, without more details, it’s impossible to pin down what exactly the space will become.
French Island, named by the French explorer who originally discovered the island, has a population of 119 people and already attracts a substantial number of tourists. These tourists are drawn to the island primarily for camping and other outdoor activities, with the French Island National Park accounting for 65 percent of the island’s total area. The island is also home to one of Australia’s largest and healthiest koala populations, and French Island often exports disease-free specimens to areas on the mainland to help shore up disease stricken populations.
In short, the island itself has substantial resources that could help turn it, and the Wufu-purchased compound, into an attractive destination for Chinese tourists. Moreover, its proximity with Melbourne and its airport means that despite the island’s secluded nature, it would remain relatively accessible. In fact, Phillip Island, a smaller island just to the south of French Island, attracts over 1.85 million tourists annually with its motor-sport competitions and its famed beaches, which feature little penguins and ideal surfing conditions.
This comparison alone has sparked concern among French Island’s residents that their home could become “too popular” with tourists. Indeed, over-tourism in regards to Chinese visitors is a legitimate concern, with major destinations like Boracay and Bali buckling under the strain. Of course, a single resort isn’t likely to attract millions, or even hundreds of thousands, of Chinese travelers. After all, while the former prison compound is large, it currently only has 80 cells.
Moreover, French Island does have some advantages in this regard. Most of the island is already protected within the national park and the island is still only accessible by ferry, with no airport or bridge connection to the mainland. Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that Wufu has expressed interest in refurbishing their new property’s dock so that they can provide transportation for their customers directly. This would reduce or eliminate any additional strain French Island’s new visitors would put on the use of the already existing ferry route to and from the mainland.