The summer tourism tide is gradually beginning to subside, leaving behind cheap tents, disposable coffee cups and plastic boogie boards.
For some, the annual influx is a source of anger and anxiety played out daily in streets and carparks; for others, it’s an adrenaline-fuelled drive to make hay while the sun shines.
But what’s it like for those who grow up with the bipolar rhythms of Byron Shire?
How does it feel to be a young person living in a place that the rest of the country sees as a laidback party town?
A new research project exploring the experience of the 2,800 local youth growing up in the shire has found that many have a love-hate relationship with their hometowns.
While they often love and identify closely with the region’s incredible natural beauty, their sense of belonging is jeopardised by the continuous waves of visitors flowing in and out.
As one youth worker interviewed for the project put it: ‘People come here to have a good time and then they just leave and that mentality is sort of ingrained in the youth’.
‘It’s a mix between partying and tourism and that’s a serious combo,’ the youth worker said.
Voices from the Margin study
Voices from the Margin: Youth Identity and Belonging in a Tourist Destination is the outcome of more than three years’ work by local Southern Cross University (SCU) researcher Dr Antonia Canosa.
Dr Canosa interviewed 74 young people from Byron Shire, aged ten to 24, about their experiences of living in a place which hosts more than 1.7 million tourists a year.
‘Young people who grow up in a holiday destination like Byron Bay are witnessing that kind of lifestyle on a regular basis – people having fun, relaxing, partying,’ Dr Canosa says.
‘They don’t always understand that these people go home to a much more normal lifestyle – a nine-to-five working week.’
‘That can skew a young person’s perspective of life in their community.’
Safety singled out
When asked what they liked and didn’t like about their communities, many of the participants singled out the issue of safety as a source of anxiety and concern.
‘There was definitely a perception that certain places weren’t safe, particularly during the peak tourist season and at times such as schoolies, New Year’s Eve and during big festivals,’ Dr Canosa said.
‘They said they didn’t feel safe in Byron Bay and that the atmosphere had changed from a laidback and relaxed beach town to sort of a sleazy atmosphere.
‘They didn’t feel safe walking around and didn’t feel safe meeting friends.’
Another teenager, Liz, 17, said that after 10pm, the attitude in Byron Bay ‘shifts from being a really happy and chilled place to being a little seedy and dangerous’.
The perceived lack of safety also extended to the surf, where many of the youths felt they were at risk from visitors who couldn’t control their equipment.
One teenage boy said he often got ‘hit in the head with boards and stuff because people just don’t know how to do it.’
‘Like when a big wave comes, they just throw their board away and it just runs straight into you and dings your board and they just look at you like, “I don’t speak English,” and just keep paddling.’
The study found that the region’s prime surf spots and its beaches more generally are central to the sense of identity and belonging for many local youth.
‘The beach is a very important space for local kids, but it’s also a contested space, particularly during the peak summer period,’ Dr Canosa said.
‘They try to find spots where there’s not a lot of people, but I think there’s often also a sense of being forced out of their favourite spots that they have a really close connection to from growing up there.’
She said this contributed to a ‘shrinking sense of community’.
‘As the area has become more overcrowded and commercialised, they feel like they don’t have a place and that they’ve lost spaces they can claim as their own.’
This sense of being pushed out extended to a perceived loss of employment opportunities.
Melanie, 24, said she felt that employers got rid of their local staff during peak season so they could hire backpackers who were ‘willing to work for rent, work for accommodation or work for nothing’.
It also contributed to anxiety about housing affordability, a concern with a very real foundation in fact.
One youth summed up the feelings of many of her peers in eloquent terms.
‘It kind of scares me because it means that people can’t live here any more as they can’t afford the rent,’ she said.
‘I suppose that’s just tourism, that’s how it works – it’s for the privileged.’
It’s a situation that leaves many young people with no choice but to move out of the shire when they leave home.
In doing so, they leave behind cherished parts of their childhood, in particularly the opportunity to live close to a stunning natural environment.
‘Being around nature was definitely one of the main things that young people loved most about living in the shire,’ Dr Canosa says of the study’s findings.
It’s not surprising, then, that young people said they often became frustrated when they perceived that tourists weren’t respecting the natural environment.
Jack, 21, said it was ‘disappointing to see people come to supposed paradise, the place they are expecting to be clean and beautiful and pristine, and then leave it in such a state’.
Fourteen-year-old Dave said he was sick of tourists from Queensland pouring into Brunswick Heads.
‘There is lots of littering everywhere and it’s mostly because a lot of tourists are always everywhere in Brunswick and they have changed how Brunswick is as a community.’
So can anything be done to minimise the impact of tourism on our local youth?
Much as we might wish to stem the flow, attempting to turn visitors away would be akin to holding back the morning tide.
The best thing we can do, according to Dr Canosa, is to give local kids as much support as possible.
‘There was a campaign to discourage the party image and encourage family tourism but, with the festivals getting bigger, I think it’s all heading in the opposite direction,’ she said.
‘What we need is support mechanisms to help young people feel that this is their home and that it’s a safe, supportive environment.
‘I think it would be good to remind them that what they see during schoolies or during the festivals is not the way these people behave in their normal lives.’