Norfolk Island is fighting for its economic life as tourist numbers drop below sustainable levels – but not because there’s a shortage of historic and natural attractions.

Story By Paul Myers

For the fifth time in its populated history, Australia’s external territory of Norfolk Island is at a turning point. But instead of population-induced change that has previously dominated the South Pacific island’s turbulent history, the latest challenge is economic.
The 35-square-kilometre outpost of 2100 permanent residents is virtually broke. The victim of post-global financial crisis pressure on tourism – its only source of income – Norfolk Island has had to be bailed out financially by the Commonwealth to pay for essential services. The quid pro quo is that the island will lose its long-standing tax-free status and become part of the Australian taxation system from 2013/14.

Although Norfolk Islanders are digging deep for survival, the boutique destination that has hosted generations of Australian honeymooners, young families and retirees is as appealing as ever. You still get the greeting “watawieh yorlyi” (“hello and how are you” in the local language) wherever you go, the same unhurried pace of life, pristine environment and stunning scenery.

But Norfolk Island is caught in a time warp. Without the glamorous resort facilities of other island destinations such as Bali, Hawaii and Fiji and cheap airfares, visitor numbers have collapsed to less than 30,000 a year, well below the 40,000 or more needed for viability.

The solution may be on the island itself, embedded in its own history, especially the 55 years it served – in two separate periods – as a penal settlement for the most hardened convicts of colonial Australia. Last year, along with 10 other locations in New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia, its Kingston and Arthurs Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) was included in the UNESCO World Heritage listing of Australian convict sites.

Historical and cultural tourism are growing rapidly internationally and Norfolk has both to burn. The first convict era from 1788 until 1814, after which the island was abandoned, and again from 1825 to 1853, provide enough intrigue to enthral even the most demanding history buff. Throw in Norfolk’s mysterious pre-colonial Polynesian era and its grant by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century as a haven for Pitcairn Islanders and there are many compelling historical attractions.

This is what Norfolk Island’s chief minister David Buffet, as well as every resident, is hoping. “The financial problems we have been facing don’t make this a less wonderful place to visit,” David says. “Without doubt, this is the toughest situation the island has faced for a very long time, but we survived before and will again.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #78

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2011