Troubled paradise: Byron Bay faces change
Originally published in 2008 when I lived in Byron Bay.
THE MAN ON THE END STALL is selling longans, tropical 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 length of branch with the tan, centimeter-wide fruits dangling from it.
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. There’s organic meats for the carnivorous and, a little further along, two Indian women sell home made pastes and cooked Indian snacks. The baker offers so wide a range of breads that shoppers have to stop and think — which one today? The rye? The wholemeal?
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, plus a bag of Northern Rivers Arabica coffee.
It have to admit 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 the place where you get to breath the volatile organic compound emissions of the products in the bathroom and laundry aisle. The farmers’ market is a far-more-pleasant and less-odouriferous environment.
Some local growers say they cannot get access to the market to sell, implying the management is creating something of an exclusive club. The management says there is not space, yet that is difficult to believe because the market is on the edge of a large field.
I don’t know which it was that said management wants to restrict seller numbers to maintain the viability of those already selling. Whichever it was, the argument is one of the signs that not all is well here in this northern coastal paradice.
Byron Bay, the one-time whaling town, past destination of holidaying families with their caravans and marquis, discovered by surfers in the seventies and alter by hippies, 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 economically. The fact that the population of around 9000 in the town and hinterland swells to triple that size in the summer holiday season is an indication of the importance of the tourist dollar to Byron’s economy.
Complainant residents exhibit the same love/hate sentiment I have encountered in other tourist towns. Take a walk down Jonson Street, the main thoroughfare, and you will see what they say about Byron being a town for transient visitors is true, they say.
I accepted their advice and set off from the beach end of Jonson Street.
Near the beach, the street offers a cluster of funky shops and eateries. The diversity of locally owned, small retailers brings an ambience that compares favourably with places dominated by the franchised retailers found all over the country. Small shops offering unique and sometimes locally made goods increase the value of the street as destination rather than thoroughfare, and in so doing encourage people to linger. Lingering people bring business.
Clothing, Eastern bric-a-brac, local crafts, jewellery, ice cream and a store selling the works of a local photographer make up the shops at the easternmost reach of Jonson Street closest to the beach.
The big hotel on the corner, across the road from the park and beach, is a social centre for the town. Walking past the cafe next to the hotel I am reminded of how, back in the 1990s, I dined with friends when a different cafe was here, one that specialised in cheap pasta meals. It was usually packed and there was a constant flow-through of patrons. It wasn’t that the food was extra good, in fact it was as ordinary as you would expect in a cheap eatery. The place wasn’t where you would go for a convivial evening with friends, however. When we asked or coffee after eating we were refused by the harried looking waiter. They wanted turnover, not lingering customers. The dollar, not the culnary arts or business reputation, predominated there.
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.
Beyond, we 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 there’s more of the same and a real estate agent.
The next section bears out the fears of those critical of the tourist and backpacker invasion. Here, in less than 100 metres, are five travel agents all with their internet cafes catering to backpackers. Their spruikers, backpackers themselves and most likely cheap labour, make no eye contact with anyone other than their own kind. If you look over 30 or look like a local they deliberately ignore you. 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.
I stop and reflect. Yes, the backpacker tourist industry is dominant at this end of town. There are also the types of service industries you expect in any town and that serve both locals and tourists — pharmacies, banks, cafes. I find difficulty in reconciling these observations with the notion of the town being only for visitors.
Backpackers — benefit or scourge?
Live in Byron for even a short time and you soon discover that much of the resentment of tourism is directed specifically at the backpacker end of the industry. It is the backpacker travel agencies, their hostels and the sheer number of backpackers on the street that make them so conspicuous.
Hostel owners acknowledge the behaviour problems their clientele bring, the noise and drunkenness. They told the local press they enforce behavioural standards in the hostels, however that is of little value as bad bahaviour occurs not in the hostels but outside, on the street.
Opinion on the backpacker industry is polarised. People are opposed to backpacker tourism or supportive of it, however there is a middle ground that is happy to have the industry in town provided its excesses are curbed. For some, though, it is the numbers of backpackers and their visual dominance that is troubling.
Supporters of the industry say backpackers bring dollars though, individually, that is fewer than other types of tourist.
Big concrete box in a car park
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 — 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 was particularly strong in the region, was gaining economic influence. The business later started a shop in Byron where it has been for quite some years now. It is one of a number of organic food and products retailers 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 how 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, Woolies is a cookie-cutter version of what you find in any other town. There is no architectural concession to Byron’s coastal ambience here.
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.
The Green Garage occupies a corner of the roundabout at the other end of town. It is a local business that 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. 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 as green walls of surging energy. There, waiting for them early every morning are the surfers whose day starts in the water, summer and winter. They are the descendants of the traveling surfers who, in the 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 iconic surfing venue was born.
A few years later came a type whose spiritual home lay 90 minutes drive inland, at the village of Nimbin. The ‘alternatives’ or ‘hippies’ left a lasting mark on Byron and contributed to its present funkiness. In comparison to the influence of the surfing subculture, theirs’ was a lesser mark, in-part because their economic legacy was local arts rather than the hard cash legacy of the surfers in the form of the surf shops, board manufacturers and surf schools.
Later, in the 1980s and on to the present day, came retirees and sea changers. Still later, cheap international air travel brought the backpackers who, like the surfers and alternatives, have made their own economic mark in town and who, like the surfers and alternatives, experienced local resentment of their presence. Unlike the surfers and alternatives who became part of Byron’s economy and culture, the backpackers are ephemeral. They come, they party, they go.
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 rents. 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. The result is a population of affluent, middle class people buying expensive houses and another population of lower income people who cannot afford to join them as home owners.
With the successive waves of immigrants came increasing pressure to develop Byron Bay. I lived part-time in Byron during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, before moving there full time. Then, I would walk past old weatherboard houses remade as shops which gave Byron a point of difference to other coastal towns, like Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour further down the coast. I didn’t know then that it was the end of an era as Byron transitioned 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.
Sentiment in town is firmly against big development although there are those who would welcome it. It’s like those who are wary of it are fighting a rearguard action against development that started when 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 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 for decades. It was unfortunate that Harvey Norman got into vociferous argument with locals as it did his reputation no good.
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.
Car parking is difficult in the peak tourism months. Street parking becomes scarce and Woolies carpark becomes an unofficial town carpark rather than for the supermarket, cinema and the 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 was 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 used to blanket parts of Sunrise Estate with a pungent stench at times. When the factory’s waste plant broke down awhile ago, a public meeting was called. It became acrimonious with a manager from the chicken processing plant engaging in a stand up argument with the Greens mayor.
The northern coastal paradise
This is Byron Bay, the northern coastal paradise, 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 Border 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 same trends, the politics, the priorities you find in the big cities.
What is to become of this place, the easternmost point of the Australian mainland fronting the Pacific?
Here’s my guess.
Controversies over development will continue as Byron relies more on the tourism industry for its economy and for local employment. It’s difficult to see any alternative industry coming to town. 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.
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 the cultural artefact of the alternative culture of the 1970s will flex its muscles from time to time 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.
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.
The outcome will be a continuation of high housing costs, high rents and the social costs that come with that. Byron 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 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.