Whitsunday is a coastal area immediately west of Whitsunday Passage. Its nearest town and point of first settlement is Proserpine. There was also a Whitsunday Shire (1989-2008).

Lieutenant James Cook when coasting northwards passed through the Whitsunday Passage on Monday, 4 May 1770. Having first seen the Passage the day before, he named it in honour of the day when the Church commemorated Whit Sunday, the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles during Pentecost, after Christ's crucifixion. Cook's chart of his voyage also showed Pentecost Island, a prominent cone toward the south of the Passage. The application of 'Whitsunday' to land forms came in the 1860s, the Whitsunday group of islands and Whitsunday Island, the largest of the group.

The extent of the Whitsunday group is not particularly well fixed. The Queensland National Parks authority defines the group as extending from Gloucester Island (east of Bowen) to Thomas Island (east of Cape Conway), but maritime authorities define the group less broadly. Commercially and touristically the Whitsunday group includes Hayman, Hamilton, Hook, Lindeman, Long and South Molle resort islands, along with the small Daydream Island, 2.6 km by water taxi from Shute Harbour.

The islands were occupied by Europeans under grazing leases until rudimentary resort accommodation was put on Daydream, Hayman, Lindeman and South Molle Islands in the 1920s-30s. In the late 1940s Ansett Airlines built significantly improved facilities on Daydream and Hayman, so beginning the Whitsundays' role as a national resort destination: Whitsunday Island was declared a timber reserve in 1902 and a national park in 1944.

Boat access to the islands relied on facilities at Cannonvale or more distant Mackay, in either case involving a transit movement in Proserpine. Overnight accommodation in that town was described in the 1950s by an overseas visitor as an ordeal. Ansett's Hayman Island resort (1950) avoided the ordeal with a Catalina flying boat. Local businessmen, sensing tourism's potential, developed the Proserpine aerodrome and lobbied for the improved Shute Harbour anchorage. The local Chamber of Commerce even predicted in 1959 that the tourist industry could become the major one, overshadowing sugar.

By 1981 the populations of the coastal Airlie Beach and Cannonvale were 2900, and Proserpine's population was about 3000, a figure it more or less stayed at until 2001. Meanwhile the other two had over 8000 by 2001, clear evidence of where the district's growth lay. In 1987 Cannonvale, Airlie Beach, Jubilee Pocket and Shutehaven (the town adjoining Shute Harbour) were united as the Town of Whitsunday. Two years later Proserpine Shire was renamed Whitsunday Shire.

In 2001 the leading employment sectors in Whitsunday Shire were accommodation and hospitality (19.5% of total employment), wholesale and retail distribution (16.5%), transport and storage (9.9%), manufacturing (8.4%), construction (7.4%) and agriculture and fishing (6.4%).

Proserpine Shire and Whitsunday Shire (which includes the islands) had census populations of:

Census Date Population
1911 1836
1947 3617
1966 6274
1976 7746
1986 11,581
1991 15,227
2001 120,990
2006 216,955
1 Including approx 6000 tourists and visitors. 2 Whitsunday Shire only.

In 2008 Whitsunday Shire was amalgamated with Bowen Shire to form Whitsunday Regional Council.

Further Reading: 

Todd Barr, No swank here? The development of the Whitsundays as a tourist destination to the early 1970s, Townsville, Department of History and Politics in conjunction with Department of Tourism, James Cook University, 1990

Ray Blackwood, Whitsunday Islands: an historical dictionary, Rockhampton, CQU Press, 1997

Airlie Beach, Cannonvale, Hamilton Island, Hayman Island, Proserpine and Whitsunday Regional Council entries