Byron Bay is not the only place having a problem with popularity. Other tourist destinations in the world have a similar predicament where demand is out pacing the capacity to cope. Increasing density, cheap airfares, and people’s desire for an aspirational social media profile, are the main reasons you get stuck in traffic on Ewingsdale Road because of Byron Bay tourism.
Many choice locations are doing it tough and, as yet, none have found a silver bullet solution. Short of ‘doing a Trump’ and building a wall, or blocking the highway exits, there are not that many things you can actually do. It could be timely to look at other places with problems, and also consider a few options that may help.
Venice is considered to have the most excessive tourism problem. Not only is it literally sinking in the mud, it also suffers under the weight of 28 million annual visitors. Byron gets around 1.5 million as a comparison. Permanent resident numbers have dropped from around 175,000 to close to only 55,000 due to home conversions into the short-term holiday let market. It is attempting to restrict cruise ships to the Grand Canal and keeping areas in the north for locals only.
Like Venice, Barcelona is a must-see destination with a vibrant culture and nightlife. Visitor numbers have jumped from 27 million in 2012 to more than 34 million in 2016 – a rise of 25% in four years. Similar to Byron, the Catalans are a bolshie and opinionated people and have not taken it lying down. Especially since places to lie down on are getting rarer, since around 40% of housing has been converted to tourist accommodation. Streets are littered with anti tourism graffiti and the city is now employing inspectors who track and fine unlicensed AirBNB operators.
Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Bar Harbor are small islands off the north east coast of the USA. Traditionally holiday retreats for the wealthy with summer holiday homes, they now suffer under the fast food of tourism – the ballooning cruise ship industry. The 4,500 residents of Bar Harbor, Maine, are often overwhelmed by up to 5,500 tourists a day in summer, only some of which are disgorged from the massive floating hotels. The town recently appointed a committee to consult stakeholders and provide an option paper. They advised buying and improving the marina, prioritising private boats, light rail and buses for better people movement. The cruise ship industry is contesting this and wants the marina to be big enough to land passengers direct to shore, something the anti tourist residents are strongly resisting.
SF has two locations that have a similarity to Byron Bay. Marin County is over the Golden Gate Bridge to the north of the city. Towns like Fairfax, San Anselmo and Mill Valley have the same feel and sensibility to our own Bangalow, Federal or Mullumbimby. Health food stores advertise yoga classes and colonic irrigations. It has since been “discovered” and these days no one tries to go anywhere between 3 and 7 as all the roads are completely clogged with late model, expensive SUVs.
Palo Alto and Mountain View are suburbs to the south of the city. It is more commonly known as Silicon Valley. It still looks like suburbia, with three or four bedroom family homes, but these average houses now have a median price of $US2.5 million. Workers in teaching, nursing, hospitality and cleaning, or anyone not participating in an IT share float, have to commute for hours to get to work.
A couple of years ago, I attended a family wedding on the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples. The town of Ravello is situated on a high ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. The central square has tributaries of narrow cobblestone streets making car access to most of the town impossible. We were dropped a few hundred metres from our villa, lugged our luggage and spent the week walking everywhere. I remember enjoying the greetings from locals with a friendly Buongiorno or Come stai? Other villages had central areas with more car access along with the noise, fumes, congestion and frustrations.
What to do?
Byron Bay is on the international hit list and it cannot get off, unless we destroy most of the things we love about it. What we have in common with the places listed above is, in the main, we are relatively powerless to stop or resist the onslaught of modern tourism. A Local Government Authority is not sufficiently armed with enough buttons and levers. However, there are some things that can be done to remediate or temper the worst outcomes.
De-emphasising the priority of cars in the centre of our towns and villages is something that is known to work. Yes, it is inconvenient to have to park and walk to shops and facilities – especially for the elderly or mums with young kids – I’m sorry. The resistance to paid parking, bypasses and various town master plans is understandable, but they are a necessary steps to making our towns people friendly instead of clogged by cars.
Quality over quantity
We cannot stop people from coming here, but we can have an influence over who WANTS to come here. Many of us are not happy that our sleepy little beach town is going up market and trendy, but there are advantages. Eco tourism is a growing market and we can play to our strength. A family on holiday may be preferable to a house full of backpackers or a car full of day-trippers. If that family enjoys nature walks, yoga and spas, buys locally produced organic food at the farmers market, stays longer and spends more with less impact, then we have an overall win/win and gradually influence the quality of Byron Bay tourism.
Manage holiday letting
This is a contentious and combative area and I personally know people who have been seriously affected by badly managed holiday letting. AirBNB, UBER and other disrupters in the sharing economy have faults but they are popular and are here to stay. Currently the NSW Gov. is developing a permit policy to license the Short Term Holiday Let industry, which will help with Byron Bay tourism. It will not satisfy the “shut it down” lobby but policing licenses will at least be able to weed out the rogue operators and cash cowboys. Unfortunately, even if we were able to eliminate Holiday Letting, most of those properties would not revert back to an easily affordable level of rental or purchase.
Keep out the 1%
I was once walking along a beach in Florida. My local friend was pointing out who owned the mega mansions lined up beyond the dunes: A famous pro golfer, Madonna, a hedge fund manager, etc. Every one of these houses was empty with curtains drawn. The mega wealthy buy multiple exclusive properties as a fixed asset in a balanced portfolio. Again, we cannot restrict this but there are ways to introduce fees and taxes on empty, unused property. Byron is not there yet but it could be soon.
Maintain the vibe
The vibe is more important than the built space. The people, way of life, culture and community is more important than keeping everything as it was. Byron has changed so much over the past few decades but has still managed to keep being quirky, interesting, different, beautiful and green.
We need to remain diligent and man the barricades against inappropriate development and Byron Bay tourism excesses, but also be gracious hosts and beneficent caretakers and share what we have. We should be so lucky – we also don’t really have a choice.