Southerners flock to tropical Queensland for sea-change

With just two sets of traffic lights in town, Renee Branton-Brown’s 10-minute work commute in Queensland’s Airlie Beach is a lot more palatable than the hour and 45minutes she used to spend on public transport getting to her old office in Sydney.
And that is just one of the many bonuses she lists about moving from the big city toa tropical paradise. As general manager of Cruise Whitsundays, Ms Branton-Brown spends plenty of time out on the dreamy blue water encasing the Whitsunday Islands, but it is the community feel of Airlie Beach that has kept her there.
“I love that when you go to the grocery shop, you stop at least five times to talk to people who you know,” she said.
“We live in a little cul-de-sac, and every household on the street has kids, and they’ll just go outside and play together – you don’t get that in city centres.”
Ms Branton-Brown and electrician husband Justin Buhagiar, packed up and moved to Airlie Beach in 2019, welcoming son Brodie two years later.



They are among thousands of southerners who have flocked to the tourist mecca for a sea-change in the past decade.
The “gateway” to the Great Barrier Reef, Airlie Beach is now the second-fastest-growing town in Australia, with a 30 per cent increase in population between June2013 and June 2023.
A new breakdown of Australian Bureau of Statistics population figures by demographer Bernard Salt shows Airlie Beach now houses 15,723 residents, up from12,132 in 2013, and exceeded in its growth rate only by Warragul-Drouin, southeast of Melbourne, at 41 per cent.
No other sea-change town increased by this percentage in that period. The next-fastest-growing sea-change town was Sunshine Coast, up 28 per cent.



Whitsunday mayor-elect Ry Collins, who moved to the area six years ago, said population growth around Airlie Beach had been “exponential” since the pandemic, with more large developments in the works to house the throngs of new residents.
“Like other parts of the country, we do have a housing shortage here at the moment,” he said.
“There’s been a strong desire for people in capital cities, particularly some of the southern capital cities, to relocate here. We have seen property prices grow quite significantly, and double in some cases.
“I think people are looking for a bit of a lifestyle change, it is a very naturally beautiful region, and we still have that regional and rural community feel too.”
The coastal town is dominated by the tourism and hospitality industries, but a large chunk of the population works in the resources sector, with census data listing coalmining (5.5 per cent) as the biggest employer behind accommodation providers.
“I would say the drive-in-drive-out mining market has increased quite a bit,” Mr Collins said. “People live here then drive out to the Bowen Basin for their week on, then back here for their week off.
“Someone mentioned … we have one of the highest rates of boat ownership in the country, so I think that is driven by people working in the resources sector with ahigh disposable income who like to get out on the water and enjoy the Whitsundays.”

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