Surfer Magazine

In news only mildly shocking in this day and age, developers have announced plans to build a five-star hotel and resort spa overlooking the break at Margaret River in Western Australia.

The 120-room Westin Margaret River Resort and Spa – owned by the Marriott Hotel chain – is proposed for the southern headland of Gnarabup Beach, the boomerang-shaped building facing north with a view across to the Margaret River main break. Approvals pending, developers Saracens Property and Security Capital Australia plan to start building early next year, with the hotel opening in 2023.

The developers lay it on pretty thick. “A world class location deserves a world class hotel experience. Set on a headland in a prime beachfront location, this new 5-star hotel will set a new benchmark for accommodation in the Margaret River region. The design approach is centred on creating a “quintessential South-West” experience – a resort amongst the wilderness that sits sensitively within the landscape of its prominent site.”

Just how “quintessentially South-West” and “sensitive” to the coastal landscape is currently being hotly debated.

A quick geographical primer. The actual township of Margaret River is five minutes’ drive inland from the coast, and Margies Main Break is adjoined by the twin towns of Prevelly and Gnarabup. Both barely qualify as “towns” however, having a combined permanent population of around only 700 people. The hotel at full occupancy could almost double that number… and then there’s Stage 2 and Stage 3. Lost in the announcement of the five-star hotel was the fact there are another two stages in the development to the immediate south of the hotel site. “Gnarabup Beach Houses” will see a 4.4-hectare parcel of land subdivided up and sold for residential and holiday housing.

The Gnarabup site was originally zoned as a special coastal area and was safe from development, but that was overruled by direct ministerial approval in 1996. It was almost a Japanese golf course, before the local council knocked back another development on the site in 2004. In the years since, it has provided a buffer of coastal health between the residential area of Gnarabup and Gnarabup Beach itself, which is fringed by a fragile dune system that’s suffered severe and ongoing beach erosion in recent years. The hotel will be beachfront and have direct access. “It was really just a case of a terrific piece of land that you couldn’t say no to,” said developer Joel Saraceni.

The developers are bullish and with good reason. Alongside mining, tourism drives the West Australian economy and was worth $11 billion to the state last year. The annual Margaret River Pro WSL tour event is underwritten by State Government tourism money. Since the COVID outbreak however, Western Australia has been cut off from the rest of Australia and tourism has stopped dead. A flatlining tourism industry has provided the perfect opportunity to push the development through as part of the recovery. Both the WA Premier and Tourism Minister attended the announcement last week and shared the developers’ enthusiasm. “The State Government’s view is that this is a fantastic project for the local community,” said Tourism Minister Paul Papalia, “particularly given the severe impacts of COVID-19 on local tourism.”

The local community however aren’t so keen on the development and are already rallying against the hotel. The scale of the development, its impact on the coastal environment, the effect on existing smaller tourism businesses and the lack of consultation both with locals and the area’s traditional owners are all issues being raised. There are concerns around sewerage capacity and the area is classified as a high bushfire risk, with just one road out of town. The development has yet to receive formal approval, but new WA State planning legislation could see it fast-tracked and signed off as a project of State significance.

Locals are worried. “It’s just too big and in the wrong place,” offers Taj Burrow, who has lived in the South-West his whole life. “It takes over the whole headland. People come down here to experience wild coastline and nature. That’s what they associate with the area here, not five-star hotels. If it goes ahead it will definitely change the feel of the place forever.”