Home » Is Kangaroo Island at risk of being loved to death with latest tourism accolade?

Is Kangaroo Island at risk of being loved to death with latest tourism accolade?

Kangaroo Island has notched a tourism trifecta after collecting its third destination accolade in three months, but its mayor is worried that the island can’t keep up.

The nature and wildlife mecca off the coast of South Australia was named as one of 50 destinations in The World’s Greatest Places of 2023 by Time Magazine.

It follows from a New York Times mention in its Top 10 Places to Visit in 2023, and after Tourism Australia crowned Stokes Bay as the Best Australian Beach, the first for a South Australian beach.

It is a far cry from the last time the island made headlines, when in the summer of 2019–20, more than half of the island was decimated by bushfires.

Many animals perished, especially the island’s koala population, leading international vets to fly over to lend a hand. 

This tragedy led to Time Magazine’s label for the island as Rising From The Ashes.

Stokes Bay on Kangaroo Island’s north coast was named the Best Australian Beach for 2023.(Supplied: Tourism Australia)

Brisbane was also named in the Time Magazine list for its Queen Wharf developments and investment in infrastructure ahead of the Olympic Games.

The island, which is the country’s third-largest, is known as a sanctuary for wildlife, its pure strain of the much-coveted Ligurian bees, and for its natural, rugged beauty.

An overhead view of Stokes Bay on Kangaroo Island.
Stokes Bay on Kangaroo Island’s north coast was named the Best Australian Beach for 2023.(Supplied: Tourism Australia)

Island intrigue

Kangaroo Island Mayor Michael Pengilly said he welcomed the latest acknowledgement, even if it had come as a surprise. 

“The [accolades] seem to be coming left, right and centre,” he said.

“We welcome that publicity. You cannot actually buy that sort of publicity.

“Our natural attractions, our coastline, our beaches, of course, our native bush and our animals [played a role].”

Cr Pengilly also highlighted the island’s distilleries and wineries, and joked about a point of difference nowhere else in the world can claim.

Kangaroo Island Council Mayor Michael Pengilly
Mayor Michael Pengilly said the recent attention could help the island’s push for improved road infrastructure.(Supplied: Kangaroo Island Council)

“Well, being an island helps. Being called Kangaroo Island helps even more,” he said.

Cr Pengilly said the community’s recovery from the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires was well underway, with residents ready to put the devastation behind them.

“We’re getting there. People that were burnt out really want to get on with their lives. That doesn’t matter whether it’s farmers or businesses, or people that lost their businesses; people just want to move on,” he said. 

“We’ve been very fortunate that we had great support from the federal and state governments at the time. And that really helped get us back on our feet.”

Satellite imagery of Kangaroo Island
Satellite image of Kangaroo Island after the bushfires. Taken December, 2019.(Supplied: European Union, Contains Modified Copernicus Sentinal Data 2020, Processed With EO Browser.)

Profile raising

While Cr Pengilly said the recognition was a blessing for the tourism industry, it came at a cost.

He said the the island’s road infrastructure was in need of upgrading.

“Our roads are still a nightmare. That’s a major thing, which we as a little council simply can’t cope with. I’ve spoken to the federal minister on that,” he said.

“I would like to see a federal state program of infrastructure put in on the roads particularly so we can cope with the numbers. That’s critical for us. We simply just can’t do it.

“One of the things that the jury’s out on at the moment is the imposition of cruise ship passengers who really don’t pay anything into the island to help with infrastructure.”

Luxury accommodation nestled in bushland, right on the coast.
Kangaroo Island’s Southern Ocean Lodge reopened after the bushfires.(Supplied: Southern Ocean Lodge)

Additionally, affordable and reliable access to the island by air or sea remains extremely difficult. 

“After the fires and with COVID we lost Regional Express, which was our mainstay airline. We’ve only got Qantas now, whose services are a bit hit and miss,” he said. 

Rex Airlines
Regional Express no longer operates after the island’s bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.(Supplied: Rex.)

Cr Pengilly said that logistically, the lack of both an early morning flight and evening flight made it difficult for international visitors and local families and business to do day trips on and off the island.

“It’s horrendously expensive, and also not everyone wants to go on the ferry. For example, it’s a 20-minute flight to Adelaide. However, if you go by ferry, in essence, it’s a seven-hour return trip.”

Like the rest of the nation, Kangaroo Island is also grappling with a housing crisis. 

“It’s almost impossible to get a rental on the island. That’s not a lot different to a lot of other places. Anything that comes up sells very, very quickly, but there is no rental accommodation available,” Cr Pengilly said.

The housing shortage also put pressure on local businesses trying to secure workers. Many international visitors coming to the island for work are unable to find a place to stay.

“[There are] backpackers wanting to come in and work here but can’t get accommodation, so it’s presenting huge problems,” he said.

Thoughts from a local

Events manager at Kangaroo Island Spirits Lisa Marshall believed the island had become busier after the recent profile boost. 

She said: “there is a 20-per-cent increase in tourists travelling over opposed to this time last year.”

A figure that Ms Marshall said was reported by the island’s main ferry operator, SeaLink.

woman wearing black t-shirt holds drink smiling
Kangaroo Island Spirits’ event coordinator Lisa Marshall.(Supplied: Lisa Marshall)

It means that even though Kangaroo Island is entering its quiet season, businesses are keeping their doors open later.

And it’s not just the gin distillery that’s getting busier.

“I’ve definitely noticed there’s a lot more people down there [Stokes Bay]. Because it is a bit of a hidden beach, not many people know about it. Now people are realising they have to walk through the caves to get to the little piece of paradise on the other side,” she said. 

Ms Marshall echoed Cr Pengilly’s concerns about a ferry timetable that better serviced the island.  

“I know, for myself as a local, I tried to get off the island and that was very impossible with booking ferries. The ferries are full quite often now. There’s not very many spots so you have to book a fair bit in advance. That is becoming a problem,” she said.

She said attracting workers to the island wasn’t the issue, but finding accommodation to keep them there was.

“That was actually a bit tricky. Because [my centre] it grew and grew. Obviously, I needed more staff members, so we had to actually look in Adelaide for staff members,” she said.

“And then obviously, then people fall in love with the island so much and they want to move here but we don’t have accommodation, especially rentals.

“I think COVID definitely pushed a lot of people to the island [for a feeling of safety].”