“We are open for business.”
That is the declaration and heartfelt plea made by Christmas Island residents and business owners to tourists as more than 200 Australians evacuated from Wuhan, China, touch down on the small Indian Ocean territory.
The rescue of 243 registered Australian citizens who have been trapped in Wuhan since the Chinese city’s lockdown almost two weeks ago has largely been sold as a humanitarian mission.
But for residents on Christmas Island, it has become a serious threat to their livelihoods.
Shortly after the announcement that Australians stranded in Wuhan would be evacuated to Christmas Island, the small territory was branded a “leper colony” in the media.
Yesterday several travel agents contacted tourism operators and small businesses asking whether it was safe for tourists to visit the island.
It comes after concerns the deadly coronavirus, which has killed more than 350 people and infected 14,600, could spread to locals from those quarantined at the North West Point detention centre.
Two parents dropping their four-year-old daughter for her first day of pre-primary yesterday morning said they were most “on edge” about her.
“As we get more information trickling through the media we’re becoming less nervous and anxious, but in the end, the fact is they’re bringing a contagious virus to the island our kids live on,” the woman, who wanted to stay anonymous, said.
Both parents have been contacted by family members on the mainland, asking them if they will be “getting out”.
Christmas Island Administrator Natasha Griggs said this perception was disappointing given the Indian Ocean territory was providing a safe haven for Australians.
She said the welcoming and resilient community on the island was supporting the government’s operation to bring home fellow Aussies.
Ms Griggs has had to reassure a number of fearful WA businesses and operators that it was safe to come to the island.
It comes after a local business owner said she had received a booking cancellation via email at the weekend from a woman who was “scared to stay on the island because of the virus”.
Assistant Minister Regional Development and Territories Nola Marino said the Government’s first priority was the health and safety of all Australians including the Christmas Island community and its visitors.
“People should be assured that Christmas Island is a safe destination to visit. Its unique natural environment, history and attractions continue to make it a fantastic tourism destination,” she said.
“The Chief Medical Officer has stated that the risk to other Australians is very low.”
All of those repatriated from China have been health screened before arriving on Christmas Island, and they will be completely separated from the Christmas Island community during their period of quarantine.
“Those quarantined will not be moving around the island or accessing any services used by Christmas Island residents or visitors. There will be no impact on services for those in the community,” Ms Marino said.
Local economist and planner Vanessa Bennett said she moved to the island permanently about four years ago after meeting her husband there.
“The natural environment here is just absolutely amazing,” she said.
“We were swimming with whale sharks two weeks before Christmas, you get to swim with dolphins, the diving is one of the top 10 places in the world, the bushwalks are just beautiful and obviously we’ve just had the crab migration which is incredible.
“So it really is a pity we get a lot of negative attention … because the impact of a range of things aren’t felt like it’s portrayed in the media.
“So for instance, the detention centre is one of the furthest things from the settlement area, so it’s just not part of the day to day.”
The Howard-era facility, built 12 years ago to hold asylums seekers that had come to the island by boat, is the largest of three immigration centres on the island and is a 20-minute drive from the settlement.
Just under 250 evacuees are tonight set to touch down on the island before being shuttled from the tarmac and into the quarantine zone inside the centre.
Meanwhile, Christmas Island Tourism today released a statement urging residents to promote their island home.
“In the wake of the evacuation process, we will call on you all to assist us to get the word out about the real Christmas Island… an island that is home to stunning wildlife, world-class adventure activities and a vibrant, multicultural and compassionate community,” the statement urged.
“We have been contacted by many of you, from all corners of the globe, offering support and asking one key question — is it safe to come to Christmas Island?
“We at Christmas Island Tourism are eternally grateful for your ongoing support and we will be in touch in the coming days to let you know how you can assist us to tell the world what we all know — Christmas Island is amazing.”