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Troubled paradise: Byron Bay faces change

THE MAN ON THE END STALL is selling longans—fruits whose hard, brittle skin you break with your teeth before chewing the juicy white pulp off the large black seed. At $8 a kilo, you are presented with a piece of branch with the tan, centimeter-wide fruits dangling from it. Clearly, these fruits are freshly picked.

At the other end, a man feeds a long stalk of sugar cane into a heavy duty juicer while his female partner sells the squeezings to the thirsty. Nearby, glossy green and rosy red capsicums shine with reflected light amid the eggplants, lettuce and other vegetables of one of several organic produce stalls.  Opposite, there’s organically grown meats for the carniverous and, a little further along, two Indian women sell home made, hot-looking pastes and cooked Indian snacks.

Nearby, the baker offers so wide a range of breads that shoppers have to stop and think—which one today? The rye? The wholemeal? With or without seeds baked onto the top? Choice, evidently, becomes paralysing when there is so much of it.

I settle for organic tomatoes, a capsicum, some onions, a lettuce, a loaf of local sourdough and a bottle of sweet chilli sauce laced with an Australian bush food. To that, I add a bag of Northern Rivers Arabica coffee but I resist the half-jackfruit although I sample a slice of yellow dragon fruit, having previously found the red variety to my liking. Oh, yes, I also buy $8 worth of longans. It’s not a true kilo, of course, because the fruit are still attached to a short length of branch which, though light, will add to the weight. I learn from the grower that longans are not as sweet as lcyhee but will grow better in temperate areas, not that that matters here in the subtropics. I won’t be saving the seeds to plant though, for there’s a woman selling young fruit trees. I resist the malabar chestnut red dragonfruit seedlings.

It must be admitted that shopping at the Byron Bay Farmers’ Market is better than tramping up and down the aisles in Woolworths, the only supermarket in the town centre, and breathing the clinical emissions of the products in the bathroom and laundry aisle.

Jonson Street near the beach… a cluster of funky shops and eateries. The diversity of locally owned, small retailers brings quite a different ambience and interest to Byron’s streets in comparison to some places that are dominated by generic franchise retailers found all over the country. Small retailers offering often unique and sometimes locally made goods increase the value of street as destination rather than thoroughfare, and in so doing encourages people to linger and benefits local businesses.

The Town

Byron Bay, the one-time whaling town, past destination of holidaying families with their caravans and marquis, is today a town for tourists, not locals, according to an influential minority of residents. It’s a strongly held opinion in a town that relies on the seasonal influx of holidaymakers to keep going. The fact that he population of around 9000 in the town and hinterland swells to triple that size in the January holiday season gives an indication of the importance of the visitor dollar to Byron’s economy. Those residents I mention—theirs’ is the same love/hate sentiment you encounter in other tourist towns. Just take a walk down Jonson Street, the main thoroughfare, and you will see that what they say about Byron being a town for transient visitors is true, they say.

I decide to accept their advice and set off from the beach end of the street. By the time I reach the end of the main commercial strip I find that Byron’s town centre can be thought of as being divided into three segments. They overlap of course, Jonson Street is a connection, not a barrier, after all.

I start my walk along the beach end and pass small shops selling a range of visitor-oriented products. Clothing, Eastern bric-a-brac, local crafts, jewellery, ice cream and the landscapes of a local photographer make up the shops of this easternmost reach close to the beach. It’s a visually attractive cluster on both sides of the road with lots of colour and interesting merchandise in the windows to attract the visitor.

Come by some nights and you find a seller of lights occupying the doorway of a clothing shop, over next to the Indian restaurant. His is an illuminated display of unconventional light shades made of convolutions of paper and thin plastic. Walking past the cafe next to the hotel I am reminded of how, perhaps back in the 1990s, I dined with friends when a different cafe was here, one that specialised in cheap pasta meals. It was packed and there was a constant flow through of patrons. It wasn’t that the food was extra good, in fact it was ordinary as you would expect in a cheap eatery, but the place wasn’t where you would go for a convivial evening with friends—when we asked or coffee after eating we were refused by the harried looking waiter—clearly, they wanted turnover, not repeat business.

With the Norfolk pines that line the street, the outdoor dining and the press of people on the footpath, the ambiance along this short strip is one of relaxed busyness.

Across the road

Cross the roundabout to enter a part of town dominated by nondescript, one or two level commercial buildings of little architectural significance. Here, the town’s commercial services are congregated. A bank, the Great Northern Hotel, a couple clothing stores, two surf shops, another ice cream shop, a convenience store and more cafes. Pass the fire station to find more of the same, plus a real estate agent. Interestigly, its business bretheren are clustered on Fletcher Street, the major commercial cross street that intersects Jonson at the round-about. Flether is a visual cacophony of coffee shops, a couple book stores, even more fashion and surf shops, a local art dealer, a pizzeria, one of town’s two Subway fast food stores and, at the far end, a neglected-looking public library.

Back on Jonson, the next section bears out the fears of those tourist-invasion conscious residents. Here, in less than 100 metres, are five travel agents all with their attendant Internet cafes catering to visiting backpackers. Notice how they ignore you if you look over 30 or look like a local. Their spruikers, backpackers themselves and, perhaps, cheap labour, make no eye contact with anyone other than their own kind. There’s an all-night cafe in this strip, a couple more clothing retailers, the Mad Dog surfshop and the first of the organic food retailers.

Further down the road, opposite Woolworths, is a strip with cafes, an office supply shop, a second-hand book dealer that has been there for years and an Asian food and thingy-store. Opposite, at the edge of the Woolworths car park, is the town cinema and below is its competitor, a video rental store.

Opposite, I stop and reflect. Yes, the backpacker tourist industry is dominant for a short length of this end of town. Yes, the clothing and surf shops do serve visitors. But I find difficulty in reconciling these observations with the notion of the town being for visitors only. There are the types of service industries you expect in any town and that serve both locals and tourists—the pharmacies, the banks, the cafes.

Live in Byron or even a short time and you soon discover that part of the resentment against tourism is directed specifically at the backpacker end of the industry. It is the backpacker travel agencies, their lodges and the sheer number of backpackers on the street that make them so conspicuous. Lodge owners have acknowledged that there are behaviour problems with their clientele—noise and drunkenness, specifically. They have told the local press that they enforce behavioural standards in the lodges but the behaviour, for the most part, occurs outside their jurisdiction, on the street.

Opinion on this issue, as it is on so much else in this small town, is polarised, or that’s how it comes across. Many people seem to be either opposed to backpacker tourism or completely supportive of it. There is, fortunately, a middle ground that is happy to have the industry in town provided its excesses are curbed. For some, though, its the numbers that is troubling.

Supporters of the industry say that backpackers bring dollars though, individually, fewer than other types of tourist that are seen as more ‘acceptable’ by the critics. Add those backpacker travel agencies crowding the strip opposite Woolworths, the locally owned surf schools, joy flights, parachuting and canoeing operators—started by people who have been fortunate enough to turn their sport or hobby into their livelihood—and you have a significant dollar input into the local economy.

Byron Main Beach looking towards Cape Byron with its lighthouse—the easternmost point of the Australian mainland. Its beaches are the town’s major natural assets.


Down Jonson Street, opposite the park in front of the disused railway station—the state government ended the train service several years ago, much to the anger of local people—and you find Fundamental Foods. Fundies, as locals call it, made its start in the nearby city of Lismore back in the 1970s when the ‘alternative’ lifestyle culture it emerged from, and which as particularly strong around here, was gaining economic influence. The business later started a shop in Byron where to has been for some years now. The store is one of a number along this and the next block, and, like the real estate agents on Flethcher Street and the backpacker travel agencies nearby, it is an example of the way that similar businesses cluster.

In marked contrast, across the street is the architecturally unimaginative concrete mass of Woolworths, a big concrete box amid an equally big carpark. Like the food it sells, the premises is a cookie cutter version of what you find in any other town—no architectural concession to Byron’s coastal ambience here.

Woolies is always busy and it is busy later in the day because it is open into the early evening, well after the small food businesses across the road have closed. That factor alone would guarantee its continued existence, as would its location on the main street and the ease of parking.

Life is not without challenge for Woolies. In 2005, the management unexpectedly found themselves the target of an anti-packaging waste campaign when local surfer and then-NSW Upper House MP, Ian Cohen, led a large group into the store to make their point. The manager, though taken by surprise, dealt with the intrusion comfortably and the event proceeded trouble-free.

Occasionally, you hear criticism of Woolies. It is a quiet criticism that emerges in conversation about other issues and seems to have grown around the dominance of supermarkets in small towns, the packaging waste that comes with its products and its alleged ignoring of local producers. You get the impression that some townspeople accept the supermarkets presence but believe Byron would be better off without it. Now, it’s no longer the sole supermarket in Byron. Another, smaller and independent version has opened just north of town in Sunrise, thought it’s really no competitor as it’s a few kilometres from the town centre.

Watch Woolworths with its extended business hours and constant flow through of people and you realise how the supermarket duopoly has come to dominate the food industry in this country and how what it chooses to sell is what people get to eat. The duopoly is a major determinant of the Australian diet and of Australian nutritional health.

T he Green Garage occupies a corner of the roundabout at the other end of town. It is a local business that, like the smaller mini-market at the beach end of the business district, bridges the gap between the corner grocer and the supermarket. The saving grace of Green Garage is that the proprietors stock local farm and processed products as well as other goods. Although further from the central business strip, Green Garage attracts customers put off by the impersonalised, industrial scale of shopping at Woolies and who prefer to support local enterprise.

A cultural remaking

The swells roll into The Pass and Cosy Corner from the Pacific, green walls of surging energy. There, waiting for them early every morning are bands of surfers whose day starts in the water, summer and winter. They are the descendants—and are sometimes the same only now older—of the traveling surfers who, in the early 1970s, realised that they would be able to catch waves every day if they settled in town. This they did and the revival of Byron Bay as an icon-venue in Australian surfing was born.

A few years later came a type whose spiritual home lay 90 minutes drive inland at the village of Nimbin. The Alternatives left a lasting mark on Byron and contributed to its present funkiness, but in comparison to the influence of the surfing subculture, theirs’ is a lesser mark in part because their economic legacy was local arts rather than the hard cash legacy of the surfers, the surf shops and board manufacturers.

Those surfers started to move in during the 1970s, the same time as alternative culture started to manifest in the region and both groups have made their own contribution to making Byron what it is today. Later, and here I’m talking about the 1980s and on to the present day, came retirees and sea changers. Still later, in the late 1990s, cheap international air travel brought the backpackers who, like the surfers and alternatives, made their own economic mark in town and who, like the surfers and alternatives, experienced local resentment of their presence. Unlike like the surfers and alternatives who became part of Byron’s economy and culture, the backpackers are ephemeral, they come, they party, they go. This is why they might constitute an economic benefit to the town but are unlikely to leave a lasting cultural benefit. Bring on a severe economic recession and their numbers, like the industry that caters to them, are likely to dwindle. Looked at that way they’re a gold mine to be exploited before the ore body runs out.

Evening comes to Main Beach, looking north towards distant ranges. Surfing is a significant industry in Byron Bay, incorporating surfboard manufacture and retail, the retail of surfing subculture clothing and other goods, accommodation, food and surfing lesson providers.

Dealing with development pressure

When a place becomes popular with tourists and attracts an increasing permanent population, development pressures are sure to become prominent. People moving into town need somewhere to live and tourists somewhere to stay. Fail to open land to development and you get a housing shortage and rising land values, and this discriminates against people who cannot afford to buy an expensive house. Housing shortages also push up rents, making life in paradise definitely unparadisical for those on low incomes. People end up renting converted garages and similar accommodation because it is more affordable. Even the older children of those who moved into town decades ago cannot afford to buy. You end up with a population of more affluent middle class people,  a demographic in full employment buying expensive houses and another population of lower income people who cannot afford to join them as home owners. This is Byron Bay.

With the successive waves of immigrants has come increasing pressure to develop Byron Bay. When I used to live part time in Byron during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, before moving there full time later for a period, I would walk past old weatherboard houses remade as shops. This, for me, gave Byron a point of difference to other coastal towns like Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, a different and pleasant ambience redolent of the casualness that permeated the place and suggested to the suggestible that here you could live an easy going lifestyle. I didn’t know then that I was around at the end of an era… at the transition from informal holiday town to Byron the rebuilt.

Fletcher Street has been almost completely reconstructed since the 1990s. The block behind the Great Northern Hotel was remade a few years ago and the beachside strip next to the Beach Hotel was then in process of renewal as tourist accommodation and shopping. It is less this smaller scale rebuilding of the town that has worried townsfolk, however. What has led to the politically strong anti-development lobby is the potential loss of prime beach space to large scale tourism development.

Sentiment in town is firmly against big development although there are those who welcome it. It’s like those who are wary of it are fighting a rearguard action against development that started when those small scale developments steadily replaced much of the old building stock. That might have left longer term residents with pangs of loss at seeing the old buildings go but it was the larger development proposals that really raised their ire.

Opposition gained political strength on the street and in hard-fought campaigns against big money with big ideas. The campaign against Kurt Schafer and the White Shoe Brigade from Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland was successful in the 1980s. Then, midway through the next decade, Club Med’s proposal to set up in Byron brought people onto the streets. Club Med was defeated. The latest has been the Becton redevelopment of an existing town-edge tourist facility that is opposed by the anti-developmnent lobby as well as by a Greens-dominated local council. Harvey Norman, who built a tourism facility just out of town at Suffolk Park, also felt the wrath of the lobby and became engaged in a bitter contest with council. The issue was his building a tourism facility which local opponent claimed would have environmental impacts, however there was already development along the strip that had been there decades. It was unfortunate that Harvey Norman got into vociferous argument with locals as that did his reputation no good.

There are other issues that trouble this supposedly little bit of coastal paradise. A question revolved around the proposed lifting of the development moratorium that has slowed construction in town. That was introduced until the completion of the town’s new sewage works, which has been completed.

Traffic is an issue. The long single lane road that connects Byron to the Pacific Highway becomes a multi-kilometre traffic snarl in peak holiday times and on Friday afternoons when visitors from Brisbane and the Gold Coast converge on Byron for the weekend. The crux of the problem is easily identified—it is the roundabout on Jonson Street through which all north and south bound traffic must wind its way. Council and townspeople wanted a bypass build around Byron but the idea stalled with the state government.

Car parking is difficult in the peak tourism months. Street parking becomes scarce and Woolies carpark becomes an unofficial town carpark rather than one for the supermarket, cinema and cluster of small shops it is supposed to serve. The dearth of parking makes it unlikely that the large carpark on the beachfront will be removed and landscaped as parkland anytime soon. This is unfortunate, for although it provides locals as well as tourists with convenient parking close to the town centre, it is hardly the most appropriate use of beachfront land in a major tourism centre.

Then there are issues affecting localised parts of town. Rising sea levels, it is predicted, are likely to erode the Belongil strip. At issue is whether council should reinforce the beach with rocks or, as one correspondent to the local newspaper proposed, let the houses slide into the sea. Further along the road, the chicken factory blankets parts of Sunrise Estate with a pungent stench at times. When the factory’s waste plant broke down awhile ago, n public meeting was called and it became quite acrimonious with a manager from the chicken processing plant engaging in a stand up argument with the Greens mayor.

This is Byron Bay

This is Byron Bay—a pleasant town fortunately located behind the wide sandy beach of a long, sweeping bay and backed by a coastal escarpment, farmland, forest and, in the far distance, the Coastal Range with the spire of Mt Warning protruding into the sky.

That’s the natural ambience and, with the sea, it’s spectacular and seemingly paradisiacal. Spend time living here though, and you find Byron a microcosm of the trends, the politics, the priorities that you find even in the big cities.

But what is to become of this place, the easternmost point of the Australian mainland fronting the Pacific,  westward of which the land extends over 4000 kilometres to Shark Bay in Western Australia on the shores of the Indian Ocean?

Here’s my guess.

Controversies over development will continue as Byron relies much on its tourism industry for its economy and for much local employment. It’s difficult to see any alternative industry to tourism. The population is highly educated but attracting the industries employing high level technical skills is unlikely to happen with Brisbane only a little over two hours drive north. It’s the location of Byron on the coast amid spectacular scenery that is the basis of its tourism livelihood and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

Thus, there will always be pressure to build new visitor facilities. Fortunately, there are solutions to doing this is a way that does not damage natural environments, co-opt beachfront land for private benefit, adopt a scale out of place in the built environment and that recognises in its design the history an culture of Byron. Making sure that happens will be the job of Byron Shire Council, and doing that ensures that development will continue as a lively focus for townspeople.

A strong local environment movement will keep flexing its muscles from time to time (it is a cultural artefact of the alternative culture of the 1970s) and will retain a focus on development issues. In doing this it has potential to continue its role as counterweight to development pressures of the potentially damaging kind, but only if it does not oppose development per se, just inappropriate development.

Increasing the housing stock and making housing more affordable will remain a major challenge. There’s the opposition to development that can come if done insensitively and there would likely be resistance to new development areas being opened on what is presently rural land in Byron’s immediate hinterland. This was demonstrated earlier in the decade when an environmentally sensitive subdivision was proposed adjacent to one of the villages in the Byron hinterland, when local resistance demonstrated that NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) is not an alien concept in the region.

The outcome will be a continuation of high housing costs, high rents and the social costs that come with that. Byron thus is likely to remain a divided society, split between those fortunate enough to own a house and those destined never to do so and who will continue to pay big rents.

High rise, even moderate high rise as an option? Forget it. People look north towards the Gold Coast fearing that those towers will start multiplying and marching south towards Byron.

Council will go on reflecting the town’s economic and social currents and countercurrents as they vie for advantage.

And the backpackers? They will continue to come while the global economy continues to be buoyant enough and air travel remains cheap enough to support their peripatetic lifestyle.

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