Byron Bay has been described in Vanity Fair as a “Unicorn Destination” – a rare and unique place. Blessed with incredible natural beauty, a relaxed lifestyle, vibrant community and a sprinkle of celebrity glamour, it is a long way from the sleepy coastal surfie town it was just a few decades ago.
In 2019, 2.21 million people visited Byron Shire. Unique visitors stayed for a total of 5.5 million nights. This recent council report estimates that over the next decade, visitor numbers will grow by 50% to 75%. In 2030, Byron Shire can expect 3.86 million visitors and 8.5 million visitor nights if this current trend continues. If anything, in a post COVID world, it looks like this trend line will go even higher.
Tourism is Byron Shire’s main employer; 27% of local jobs are in the tourism and hospitality industry and 16% of visitors stay in hosted accommodation. This sector provides us with employment and opportunities – as well as challenges. These include traffic congestion, parking, reduction in available and affordable residential housing, impacts on infrastructure and our environment and instances of behaviour not aligned with community’s values.
A Council First
Byron Shire Council is the first regional council to do a Sustainable Visitation Strategy. The SVS outlines a framework to minimise the impacts and maximise the benefits that tourism can bring, whilst maintaining and protecting the good things: lifestyle, culture and the natural habitat.
This latest plan follows on from the Byron Shire Tourism Management Plan 2008-2018. This first Tourism Plan was implemented to address concerns from residents about rampant tourism growth. Some actions from this plan included:
- Renovation of the Byron Bay and Brunswick Heads Visitor Information Centres (A lot of visitor traffic to these locations has since dropped off due to increased online searching)
- Development of the “Don’t Spoil Us, We’ll Spoil You” visitor brand for Byron Shire (This was a very successful and valuable campaign – more below)
- Placemaking and laneway activations in Byron Bay to support an alternate night-time economy (Bay Lane and Lateen Lane in the heart of Byron gave these lanes a makeover and are now more popular. However, many creative types in the Bay thought the Lateen Lane murals could have been more innovative)
- Multiple activities promoting visitors to explore the whole Shire
- Development and launch of Byron Business Events Bureau
- Introduction of paid parking in Byron Bay with resulting increased spending on road and open space infrastructure (Most people now acknowledge that Paid Parking has been a success in Byron CBD. It would be good to get up to date statistics on whether any businesses have suffered a loss of turnover. If not, then I don’t see why Paid Parking should not be rolled out in other popular towns and villages)
- Improved data collection and reporting
- Productive relationships with government agencies, industry and regional stakeholders.
- Employment of two new Council roles; a Tourism Officer and an Events and Film Liaison Officer,
Industry Stakeholders and community members identified gaps between community values and observed visitor behaviour. Up to 1200 people were surveyed via Kitchen Table Discussions and the Community Solutions Panel.
These gaps included respect for the environment and the community as well as the perception of Byron Bay as a ‘party town’ and anti-social behaviour. They also identified which industries they would like to see as a focus for attracting the right visitor mix. These are: • arts and creative industries • Indigenous culture • wellbeing and health retreats • nature-based tourism • business events and conferencing, • food experiences • agritourism • volunteer tourism * Ecotourism
Voluntary Bed Tax
The community strongly supports a bed tax in Byron Shire. Unfortunately, the NSW Government has not supported the Council’s request to introduce a bed tax. The present council and Mayor Simon Richardson have had many attempts at this. The idea of a voluntary bed tax was also muted but did not gain support from the wider accommodation industry. There needs to be further investigation of possible methods for additional income to support the implementation of the SVS.
Many visitors support environmentally responsible tourism, and most feel they are already environmentally conscious and respectful. Visitors show a strong preference toward natural landscapes attractions and experiences over man-made experiences when visiting the Shire. Increasingly, there is interest in experiences that are back-to-basics, relaxing, simple and nature-driven. Many residents, however, see visitors as disrespectful toward the environment and have voiced the need for an increase in education, signage, infrastructure and enforcement, as well as the need for tourism businesses to reinforce environmentally friendly and sustainable messages.
The SVS report also included some interesting case studies from other tourist destination. We have lifted the most interesting and condensed them here.
Trees for Travellers – Kaikoura, New Zealand
Trees for Travellers is a unique project, managed by Innovative Waste Kaikoura Ltd. The aim was to increase the biodiversity of Kaikoura by encouraging visitors to buy a New Zealand native tree. By buying a tree, visitors are helping return trees and birdlife to Kaikoura township and also make a contribution to offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions created in their travels. Visitors are emailed the GPS coordinates of the tree so they may return again to visit the location and maintain a connection with the destination.
Commerce, creativity and innovation were the key brand messages of Luxury Amsterdam. This campaign was very successful and, over time, changed visitor markets and behaviour. The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions says, “We’ve come a long way. Still, our main challenge is to continue to step out of that previous image and focus more on culture, quality, and luxury.” Amsterdam has similar issues to Byron Bay. Both are seen as party-towns and this, in turn, negatively impacts neighbouring towns and villages. In developing a strong marketing campaign with clear messages, the Amsterdam Strategy is shifting the perception of Amsterdam and attracting their desired visitor. By developing strategic communications and repositioning strategy (including product development and behaviour change), Byron Shire will shift the image of a party and nightlife destination to a more nature-based, alternative, health and wellbeing destination, attracting like-minded visitors with shared community values.
Uluru – Listening not Climbing
Ensuring visitors acknowledge the cultural and Aboriginal significance of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Australia Heritage sites are facing the new challenge of ‘Instagram fame’ seekers. Uluru is a sacred place for the Anangu people, whose sacred law states: “You don’t own the land; the land owns you.” On 26th October 2019, a full 34 years to the day since Uluru was handed back to the traditional owners, climbing Uluru was finally stopped. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park faced many visitor behaviour management challenges while climbing was allowed; dealing with expectations, communicating a different world view, promoting respectful behaviour, safety concerns (there have been 37 confirmed deaths since the 1950s), and communicating alternative experiences that reflect the ideal of ‘listening, not climbing’. It is important that Byron Shire develops visitor experiences that celebrate the Shire’s culture and direct visitors away from sacred Aboriginal sites. Council, together with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, can take a strong leadership role in protecting the land by working to ensure visitors are not illegally camping, dumping rubbish and contributing negatively to the local culture.
Santa Fe Rail with Trail
The most impressive of all the new trails is the Santa Fe Rail with Trail, an 18-mile path that starts as a broad, paved track and dwindles to packed dirt. The trail follows rail tracks and running trains for the whole way. The track terrain is similar to the Byron Shire, where a potential multi-use rail corridor would run from rolling hills to the sea while following an operating train service. Similar to the Santa Fe Rail, a rail-with-trail in Byron Shire could offer several safe and low-impact transport options, encouraging more cars off the road, additional accessibility for both residents and visitors, and connecting destinations throughout the region. This, in turn, would encourage visitors to a variety of locations throughout Byron Shire.
Not being a tourism expert, it is interesting though to watch the changes in this debate over the years. It is ironic that it was an awareness of the problem in the 90s when Byron Bay was the party/backpacker town. For those not present it was a wild ride with every New Years Eve experiencing off the chart drunken youths marauding through the streets.
The good burghers of the time decided to clean up our act and introduced the plan to attract a better class of tourist to the Bay. This worked extremely well and we are no longer are party town central. This then became the “Don’t spoil us, we’ll spoil you!” campaign mentioned above. (NB: I think credit is due to Adrain Nelson from Utopia Creative, who is a reader of this newsletter, who came up with this concept).
It is ironic that these days this successful campaign is now in jeopardy due to an attempt to wind back Holiday Letting. Airbnb and Holiday letting has its faults, as this newsletter has mentioned often, but it has attracted tourists who stay longer and spend more. That was the express aim of this campaign. Interesting how success creates its own set of different issues. Families want to stay in homes and be self-contained. It seems this problem is forever in flux and needs constant adjusting. Here, for example, is an article that deals with the downside of excluding backpackers as part of the tourist mix for New Zealand. Makes for an interesting read.