Stakes high as mega-casino rolls into view
From The Weekend Australian, 5th April 2014
Not since the early days of the white-shoe brigade in Queensland – when developers waltzed in and out of the top offices of the Bjelke-Petersen government – has the talk been so big, the stakes so high.
An $8 billion Macau-style resort – with two casinos, eight hotel towers and a golf course – (is planned to lure) a million guests a year, from the gambling obsessed Chinese middle class and big-betting ‘whales’ from around the world.
The proposed Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort in Yorkeys Knob, just north of Cairns, is promising to user in a new era of prosperity single-handedly for a tourist town struggling with the high dollar.
Easily the most expensive ‘non-resources project in Australia, the 240ha complex is proposed to be built on cane fields in the sleepy seaside suburb where a timber shack with a garage underneath is considered to be a high-rise. It seems Tony Fung – a Hong Kong businessman who last year burst out of nowhere with his plans for a mega-casino resort – has got almost everyone on side. Politicians are talking it up, businesses are making plans to expand and families are designing extensions to their homes to rent to the 9000 construction workers and 10,000 permanent staff if the casino gets the go-ahead. It has sparked a frenzy of support in Cairns, where a multitude of ills – sever acute respiratory syndrome, the global financial crisis, cyclones and lack of new investment – has depressed the local economy to the extent that it has the highest youth jobless rate (21.6 per cent) in Australia.
But lost in the excitement of a resort, and its projected annual take of $11bn, is growing division among the 3500 residents of Yorkeys Knob, one of the only residential beach suburbs in Cairns.
“We moved here to raise our families in a peaceful seaside community, and now we are going to be living beside the new Las Vegas,” Yorkeys Knob Residents Association president Pamela Bigelow said.
Ms Bigelow, who was appointed briefly on a “reference group” set up by Mr Fung, said she also doubted some of the promised benefits of the development.
“Publicly they have said that 10,000 staff will work in the casino, but when I asked them how many would be locals, I was told it would be limited,” she said.
“I was told that the front-of-house will be Chinese, and I guess the locals get to do the lawns and clean the toilets.”
Mr Fung’s son Justin, who is normally based in Cairns as Acquis chief executive, said in an interview from Hong Kong he could not give a breakdown on the proportion of local and flown-in staff.
“Obviously we will have a management team and we need Mandarin and Cantonese speakers… but we remain dedicated to improving the employment rate in Cairns,” Justin Fung said.
Bigelow’s group is pitted against the recently reformed and rebadged local business group – now known as Yorkeys Knob Community Progress Association – which admits to receiving “some funding” from the Fung family. While the groups fight it out, there is a real prospect that the proposal to build the resord on existing can fields – which sits on a flood plain criscrossed by crocodile-infested creeks – will not win environmental approval.
James Cook University professor Jon Nott, of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, said the project would likely breach local planning rules.
“There is a reason nothing has been built in that area before,” Professor Nott said.
“The proposed development is located on the Barron River delta, which floods regularly and is also prone to storm surges from the ocean during tropical cyclones. They are proposing to raise the levels of the project, but it is based on outdated methodology.”
With the resort set back from the beachfront, and sealed off from the neighbouring waterways, Tony Fung had hoped to avoid a drawn-out approval process.
Labelled “the bad boy of the stockmarket” by the HK Economic Times, he has had a simple message for the Newman government since announcing his plans last year: approve the resort quickly or he will go somewhere else.
One senior official, involved in the assessment of the project, said that pressure to approve the resort quickly was intense, especially as the state government approaches an election, due early next year.
“It is a frenzy up here – people are desperate to get this thing happening,” he said.
“And it is not just Fung either – the locals are pushing hard, and anyone who raises questions or concerns is shouted down or lined up.”
Mr Fung has repeatedly warned that he will go to Japan, The Philippines or South Korea – where casino licenses are soon to go onto the open market – if he is made to wait too long.
“The window of opportunity that is available to us is limited… there are a lot of people going after a piece of the action and the competition for me is not Mr (James) Packer or Echo (Entertainment) but from other countries,” he said last year.
The son of one of Hong Kong’s most successful traders, Mr Fung – who had initially hoped to begin the four-year build in July – has been disappointed by the Newman government.
Last year, prompted both by his plan and a push by Mr Packer’s wish to build a casino resort in Brisbane, the Newman government called for bids for three “integrated casino resort development” licenses in Queensland.
Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney seaid yesterday: “The integrated resorts are the emerging product in the tourism market world-wide, and the casino license is just one part of that.
“They have enormous potential to inject life into any number of centres, like they have in Singapore and Dubai, and Cairns is just one spot.
“The resorts attract tourists and we have the comparative advantage of also having the drawcard of the reef, the rainforests and the beaches throughout Queensland.”
The host of natural attractions was the decider in wanting to build a casino for the booming Chinese middle class in Queensland, where Mr Fung began investing, in cattle stations and property, two decades ago.
“We are going after the people that are shy who, if they were asked where they are going for Chinese New Year, would say Macau and be called a gambler, but instead they can say Aquis Great Barrier Reef and be labelled a ‘family man’.
During the week, the government announced there were 12 bidders, who had put up the $100,000 application fee, with plans for resorts in Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Whitsunday region, Great Keppel Island and Fung’s proposal outside Cairns.
The decision last year to call for a competitive process is understood to have enraged Mr Fung, not least of all that it delayed the project’s earliest date that if can begin building by at least a year, to next May.
He sacked his local lobbyists – including former conservative premier Rob Borbidge – before rehiring him in the new year.
But he is unlikely to make good with his threat and pull up the surveyor’s pegs on the project anytime soon.
Mr Fung has a lot of skin in the game. He has now bought the Reef Casino Trust, which operators the existing Cairns casino, as well as the casion in Canberra for $269 million.
Justin Fung told The Weekend Australian that the family couldn’t comment on whether the existing casino licence would help in the push for approval for the bigger project.
“We look forward to operating both properties in Cairns,” Justin Fung said.
As to the growing concerns from residents about living next door to one of the biggest casinos in the world, he said there was enough space between the resort and people’s homes.
“We are doing our best to mitigate the issues,” he said.
“But there is a buffer zone, it is not as if someone in Yorkeys is going to hear the jackpot of a slot machine.”
Who are the Fungs? Meet the private family behind the Aquis mega-resort and casino proposal at Yorkeys Knob
From the Cairns Post, 21st December 2013
BIG END OF TOWN: Chinese billionaire developer Tony Fung. Picture: Marc Mccormack
WHEN Tony and Justin Fung arrived in Cairns to expand their business empire, little was known about the billionaire family.
While the people behind the proposed $4.2 billion Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort remain intensely private, The Weekend Post can reveal a glimpse of their charmed lives.
A high-profile investor from Hong Kong, Mr Fung Sr is a former champion go-kart racer who once raced against the late Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, a fan of golf, boats and planes and has a deep interest in Australian agriculture.
His son Justin has two degrees from universities in the US and loves fishing and basketball
While the Far North is set to swelter in 30-plus degrees and 65 per cent or more humidity on Christmas Day, the wealthy Fung family behind the proposed $4.2 billion Aquis mega-resort at Yorkeys Knob will be cooling off in Antarctica.
Hong Kong-based Tony Fung flew his family including Aquis chief executive Justin and other sons Jason and 12-year-old John to Chile to board their luxury expedition yacht Asteria for two weeks of cruising the waters of Antarctica.
PROPOSAL: What a new Aquis resort and casino development at Yorkeys Knob might look like. Pic. Supplied
The unusual Christmas and New Year break will be a special time before the 61-year-old and Justin, 29, prepare for a frenetic year in which, if all goes according to plan, will herald the start of the Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort in July.
Family is very important to Mr Fung Sr and Justin told The Weekend Post that families would be their target customers for the resort, which will include an international casino, nine luxury hotels with 3750 rooms, 1200 apartments, 135 villas, 13,500sq m of high-end retail shopping, an aquarium, two theatres, a 13ha lagoon, 65ha lake, 18-hole golf course, 25,000-seat sports stadium, 45,000sq m convention and exhibition centre and 1800 staff accommodation units.
He said the resort would be designed for entire families to enjoy and not just for men.
Mr Fung Jr said it would give Aquis a point of difference to casinos with integrated resorts in Singapore and Macau.
“Aquis will be for all the family to come to Australia and not only enjoy the facilities of the resort, but the natural attractions of the Great Barrier Reef and rainforests,” he said.
FAMILY: Aquis Great Barrier Reef Resort Chief Executive Officer Justin Fung. Picture: Marc Mccormack
The Fungs are private people and information about the family is closely guarded.
When The Cairns Post asked Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper for photographs of the family, senior staff there said they had not heard of Tony Fung and the last picture they had of him on file was from 1996.
Mr Fung Sr is the billionaire scion of one of Hong Kong’s best-known banking families and has dug into the economic fabric of Queensland.
He owns two luxury homes in the Noosa hinterland, a cattle farm at Mt Garnet west of Cairns, wagyu beef-breeding business at Innisfail and sugar cane plantation on the Atherton Tableland.
His substantial fortune was inherited from his father Fung King Hey, known as “the godfather of traders”, a billionaire who was at one time the largest shareholder in the world’s largest stock brokerage firm, Merrill Lynch.
He also founded Sun Hung Kai Securities.
Fung King Hey made his fortune in tandem with his two business partners, Kwok Tak Seng and Lee Shau Kee.
The partners were the best of friends and were widely known in China and Hong Kong as “the three musketeers”.
Their children also became the best of friends.
Tony Fung started closely held stock trading firm Yu Ming Investments in 1996.
He served as chairman of SHKI Group, which was managed by Yu Ming until May 2008.
He is the younger brother of Thomas Fung Wing-fat,who moved to Canada in 1986 and built the Fairchild Group media company.
Staying in Hong Kong after his father’s corporation was taken over by Arab banking interests in 1985, Tony Fung sold his remaining 25 per cent stock in SHK Finance and began building up Yu Ming Management Ltd, which consequently made him a billionaire.
He is an avid cook and loves scouring markets for fresh produce.
He has been through Cairns’ fresh food markets, including Rusty’s, many times to buy ingredients.
Mr Fung Sr is a former champion go-kart racer and competed against Ayrton Senna, though Senna lapped him plenty of times.
He loves his boats and planes, including the family yacht Asteria.
Mr Fung Sr has a passion for Australian agriculture and the fact that Australia is a major trading partner for China.
His properties focus on wagyu and grain-finished beef plus sugar cane.
He has a strong belief in “water rights” as a hugely important asset for Australia’s future and believes Australia hugely undervalues the natural resource.
Mr Fung Sr loves golf and getting lessons from his staff on his own golf course at Noosa so he can go home and beat his mates in Hong Kong.
Justin Fung has spent all his career working for his father in the family businesses based in Hong Kong. He was educated in the United States and has two degrees: one a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in history, from Duke University; the other a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Justin said that after graduating with the BA, he realised the degree was not going to be of much use for his father’s real estate interests and went back to school to obtain the law degree over three years.
Since then he has worked for his father in Hong Kong until being appointed to oversee the development of Aquis, splitting his time between Cairns and the family business headquarters in Hong Kong.
The chief executive leases an apartment in the Harbour Lights building and the company has an office at Cairns Square.
Justin is single and enjoys fishing and basketball.