Rottnest Island, an Australian tourist destination, is being converted into a quarantine zone for 800 cruise passengers during the covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report from Australia’s public broadcaster. The island is famous for being one of the only places in the world with quokkas, a docile marsupial that doesn’t mind having its photo taken with tourists.
The Vasco da Gama cruise ship is carrying 950 passengers and 550 crew and is scheduled to dock in the city of Fremantle, Western Australia on Friday. The 800 Australian nationals on board will disembark and be loaded onto ferries for the roughly 45-minute trip to Rottnest, according to Australia’s ABC News. They’ll remain on the island for 14 days.
“In the last two days we have cleared the island of visitors and made arrangements for accommodation, catering, and security,” Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan, the equivalent of a state governor in the U.S., said at a press conference on Wednesday.
The island reportedly has 699 rooms for the 800 people, which should work out because many of the cruise passengers were traveling as couples who can bunk together. Most tourists visit Rottnest by boat, but there is a small landing pad for helicopters if emergency medical evacuation becomes necessary. There are no reports of anyone sick aboard the Vasco da Gama cruise, and the quarantine is being taken as a precaution.
The Australian government is still coordinating with foreign governments to figure out how to get people who aren’t Australians to their home countries. All foreign nationals will remain on the cruise ship until authorities determine how to get them out safely.
“They will not be allowed to disembark at any time unless it is to travel under strict supervision directly to the airport, or they need urgent medical attention to survive,” McGowan said.
There are still two other cruise ships currently waiting off the coast of Western Australia that are not being allowed to dock in Fremantle because they contain no Australian nationals. One of the ships, Magnifica, has at least 250 sick passengers and is reportedly being allowed to refuel in Fremantle, but will make its way to Dubai this week. Police are monitoring the cruise to make sure no one disembarks on Australian soil, according to the Guardian.
Cars are banned on Rottnest, aside from a handful of utility vehicles used for maintenance. Most people get around the island by walking and bicycle, as you can see in the photos below. There’s also a bus that does a circuit around the island, driving slowly so to avoid running over the little quokkas. It’s not yet clear what kind of freedom of movement people who are quarantined on the island might have once they arrive.
Australia currently has at least 2,364 cases of covid-19 and eight deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker. The state of Western Australia has 205 cases and one death, according to the Western Australia Department of Health. Australia’s worst outbreaks so far are in the eastern part of the country, including the state of New South Wales, which has 1,029 cases and seven deaths.
Rottnest Island, named by Dutch explorers in the 17th century, literally translates to “rat’s nest” because the quokkas looked like vermin. But the adorable little creatures have made Rottnest Island a popular vacation spot for celebrities and social media influencers who love to snap selfies with the animals. The Indigenous name for Rottnest in the Noongar language is Wadjemup.
Roughly 770,000 people visit Rottnest Island each year, but the vacation destination only has a handful of permanent residents. Most workers take the ferry from Fremantle, a suburb of nearby Perth, each day to work in the stores and restaurants on Rottnest.
Quokkas got the name “happiest animal in the world” after a BuzzFeed listicle deemed them that in January of 2013. The designation of “happiest animal” is non-scientific and the BuzzFeed article only called them that because quokkas often appear to be smiling and are very sociable since they have no predators on the island.
British settlers used Rottnest Island as a concentration camp for Aboriginal people in the 19th century and at least 5 people were executed on the island in the 1870s and 1880s. The island was also used as an internment camp for Germans and Austrians during World War I and for Germans and Italians during World War II.
Much like in the U.S., Australia’s favorite tourist destinations are the sites of unspeakable horrors. But the quokkas sure are cute, aren’t they? Let’s just hope the little marsupials can’t contract the disease. As we’ve already seen in Hong Kong, two dogs have tested positive for covid-19, and one of them has died.