The Byron Bay blues
First published: Online Opinion 2006. Republished Courier Mail (Brisbane).
I REMEMBER SOMETHING a man told me. Move up here, he said, and you will soon find a job.
He was an optimistic type, extroverted, healthy and prosperous looking. For a real estate agent that was probably a good image to project. And he might be have been right about finding work – if you are a real estate agent. Byron Bay has a disproportionate number of such businesses for so small a town and it’s probably no coincidence that this coastal town of 9000 is second only to Sydney in housing prices.
The estate agent’s advice about jobs seemed a little off as I got to know the place. The New South Wales North Coast region — despite a substantial population gain since surfers started to move in during the 1970s to be followed in successive decades by alternatives, seachangers, retirees and assorted refugees from the city — retains a high level of unemployment and underemployment. The Lismore employment office, so I was informed, serves the most highly educated unemployed demographic in the country. Talk to local people and you quickly discover the lack of employment is a theme. Locals take what work they can find.
The surfing industry is a local success story. Board manufacturers and retailers found their niche when surfers became the first of the city crowd to reinhabit the place decades ago. In more recent years, a number of surfing schools have opened for business and they live off the summer tourist influx, in particular the backpacking end of the tourism market. The prominence of the surfing industry explains why locals reacted negatively to recent criticism by a government minister of the local high school for offering a subject in surfing studies. He was speaking to highlight his own political agenda, whatever that was— point scoring by ridiculing the work of others — but he had spoken without knowledge of the local economy, locals charged. Better that he had kept his mouth shut, some suggested.
The Byron employment situation is exemplified by the experience of a middle aged resident who found he couldn’t find work in his usual field. So he applied for administrative jobs with Byron Shire Council, jobs he could easily do, but failed to even get shortlisted. As someone explained to him later, there are more than enough people in the region who do those jobs as their usual work.
It is because of lack of work that people who move to the area sometimes sell up and move out again, disappointed that there is no livelihood for them – when you talk to people in town this is the story you hear. They arrive full of hope, perhaps having spoken to people like that optimistic real estate agent, but find the reality different.
Demographer Bernard Salt identified the trend in moving to coastal areas. But as people move in, how do they find a livelihood? Many new residents are retirees but others are potential first home owners, young families unable to afford Sydney’s sky-high housing prices. On discovering the lack of work, some keep on keep going through Byron to Brisbane, just two hours up the highway. There, the prospects appear brighter.
Tourism – plague or opportunity?
If employment is an ongoing issue in town, then so is tourism. Tourism, in fact, is the source of controversy both on account of the town’s history of experience with proposed big developments and because of its impact on the town itself.
Townspeople defeated proposals for an ‘educational facility’ near Broken Head in the late 1980s and, in the 1990s, blocked Club Med’s plans for a big resort. The most recent fight has been against the Becton proposal for the Cape Byron Resort, though the state minister responsible has now given the go-ahead for a modified plan that would be acceptable to many. However, the intervention of Macquarie Street will not go down well. Before that, the Harvey Norman development near Suffolk Park caused local enmity, especially the millionaire’s criticism of Byron Shire Council.
The year 2005 brought resentment of tourism to a head, ironic as this seems for a town that relies for its livelihood on the spending of visitors. That resentment, however, had been fermenting under the surface of Byron society for some time and can be traced back to those earlier struggles against big tourism development. Locals find themselves in the bind of knowing that livelihoods and local economy depend on the influx of visitors while, at the same time, that influx changes the town around them.
Talk to Byron residents and you hear comments about the town not being the place they moved to years ago, that it has changed and is now a “town for visitors, not locals”. Change has been visible these last 15 years. Lawson Street has been rebuilt as a strip of cafes, coffee lounges, real estate agencies, surf shops and clothing stores and backpacker tourism has co-opted Jonson Street, the main thoroughfare, down towards the post office.
Byron’s reputation as a party town is partly to blame for this, however the town itself surely has to take some responsibility. Last New Year, council was forced to act on local resentment of the New Year’s Eve street party, with its tourist drunkenness and the way visitors left the town resembling a trash heap.
Council banned the party in a move that had considerable resident support and, led by Greens mayor Jan Barnham, council put on a family-oriented event and banned the drinking and carrying of alcohol — even unopened — in the town centre on the evening of the event. It will not be easy to change the town’s reputation but some locals are trying.
Tourists — too many, too often
Local Greens state Upper House MP, Ian Cohen is a surfer who moved to Broken Head, 10 minutes drive south of Byron, in the 1970s. He was elected to the Senate after making several close runs at local government.
Cohen is a tall, imposing and athletic figure who, since becoming a politician, has lost the hard, argumentative edge he once had. That confrontational anger was exemplified by a story of how, in the late-80s, he was driving to town when he encountered local surfing identity, Rusty Miller, standing by his broken down car. Miller, who now produces a Byron tourism guide and gives private surfing lessons, featured in George Greenough’s surfing movies and was a champion US surfer in days gone by.
The story goes that Cohen stopped his car and got out not to assist Miller but to abuse him for supposedly supporting a proposed Broken Head educational-tourism development, where he was said to have been going to teach surfing. That done, Cohen got into his van and drove off, leaving Miller stranded. That story may be apocryphal but it shows how controversy over tourism has split opinion in town.
Cohen recently acknowledged the impact of tourism and its sometimes negative consequences when he referred to Byron’s “annual tourist invasion”. So too has Miller who, in an editorial on his website refers to tourism and the stresses it imposes on the town. “If you read the local papers you will see that much of the copy and dialogue concern our situation of overinundation. Too many, too often”, he concludes.
Business caters to visitors, not locals
There’s a cluster of travel service agencies on Jonson Street caters more or less solely to Byron’s burgeoning backpacker tourist population. Inside these agencies are banks of Internet terminals packed with backpackers catching up on their email while, outside, staff hand out advertising leaflets and corner potential customers for the adventure activity businesses in town – skydiving, surfing schools, trips to the rainforest in the hills, bus trips to Nimbin.
It is interesting to observe how they discriminate — they are usually backpackers themselves — in whom they approach and who they avoid. If you look local then you are ignored — they look past you as if you don’t exist. Likewise, if you look over 30 you are similarly disregarded.
Some locals see these businesses as a type of opportunistic overlay on the authentic matrix of the town, their market an ephemeral one just like the backpackers they serve. It is as if two cultures are overlaid — the authentic local one and the backpacker demimonde — two cultures that have little by way of mutual interest, little by way of communication and even less in common.
It is true that this part of town has been transformed by the backpacker industry, and you can understand how some locals believe that this has made Byron a town that caters mainly for tourists, not residents. It was in response to charges of late night noise by these tourists, to their littering, their rowdy and violent behaviour that the backpacker industry, particularly the owners of the plentiful backpacker accommodation in town, last year made known their own efforts to curb behavioural problems. They also drew attention to the income the industry brings Byron.
At the same time, the issue of tourist noise in residential properties let out for short term holiday accommodation came to a head and council proposed intervention. Yet another controversy in a small town which, this time, stimulated efforts by the holiday letting industry to regulate the behaviour of its clients more thoroughly. There now exists an industry hotline to curb rowdy visitors.
Exacerbating the backpacker controversy is their sheer visibility. Backpackers, whether welcomed, criticised or simply accepted and ignored by locals are in such numbers that they are a dominant visible presence, adding to the perception that Byron is being overrun by outsiders.
Noise an issue too
There are other issues that trouble this supposedly idyllic town. Noise is one of them.
The annual Roots & Blues and Splendour in the Grass multi-day concerts are the target of local angst over the noise they create, particularly for those living nearby (their venues abutt residential areas).
This is another issue. It divides Byron between those who would like to see the concerts move on and those who want to retain them for cultural and economic reasons. A recent council proposal to move them to a new venue away from residential areas met with opposition from people living in the vicinity. It seems the issue is in stalemate.
It is said that Byron Bay suffers from a ‘locals and outsiders’, an ‘us and them’ complex. There is some truth to this and it may be more pronounced than in other seaside tourist towns. The sheer number of visitors almost doubles the population in holiday season and backpacker tourism, as has already been said, is highly visible.
So, what’s the future for this town with all its controversies? How will residents negotiate a détente between the economic need for tourism and the equally valid need for quality of life and a sense of control of the town they live in? And what about those jobs that real estate agent spoke of? Where are they? Well, for the most part, they aren’t.
The benefit of Byron Bay’s occasionally torrid experience is that it gives coastal towns undergoing population growth a glimpse of the sorts of challenges they may face.