The recent release of region by region statistics from Tourism Research Australia has sparked a flurry of responses from local stakeholders in the industry.
David Jones, President of Destination Byron, welcomes more data and science being added to the discussion. He says there are two very different tourism stories in the Shire, with 1.1 million day visitors and 1.1 million overnight visitors. ‘One thing that most folk in the town don’t comprehend is that 50 per cent of all visitors to our region are not staying overnight. That’s a phenomenal statistic,’ he said.
‘The science shows that people who visit for a day will stay overnight in the future, but realistically Byron has a strong over-reliance on what we call the short stay leisure market, and that’s one of the biggest Achilles heels of this town,’ said Jones.
‘We’ve become a weekender destination for Sydney and southeast Queensland. The Melbourne market might stay three or four nights, but realistically we’ve not diversified into much longer-staying guests. Mid-week in the cooler months it’s very quiet. We’re far from being an over-touristed destination.’
While hotel room numbers have remained fairly static, one change which has been confirmed by the new figures is the proliferation of short-term holiday rentals.
Loss of community
Former local member and mayor Jan Barham says her biggest concern is the loss of community. ‘We’ve got 2,500 entire houses being used for Airbnb, which means we’ve got about 6,000 residents displaced. We’re losing residents and getting commercial activities in residential zones, and losing the vital resource of people who live here and contribute to our community.’
Local Sustainability Consultant Alison Drover believes ‘business needs to profit from tourism, it is our income, but it’s a symbiotic relationship. We need management plans. You don’t need a cap but there need to be decisions around areas [and how they’re protected].’
She says there has to be more emphasis in government spending on protecting natural wonders and less on the built environment.
‘The real demand across the globe is actually nature. That’s gold. And ironically it seems to be in Byron that the least amount of effort is spent on protecting what we have and making management plans around it.’
Drover uses the allegory of an art gallery when discussing the need to safeguard the natural gems of the region. ‘You have the Mona Lisa and she’s behind glass, and there’s other areas of the gallery where you can look and interact. We need to decide which areas of this Shire and region are like Mona Lisa, and which areas we want to design walking trails for and decide how people are going to interact, because at the moment people are just trashing the place.’
Everyone agrees that there’s room for improvement in the marketing of Byron Bay as a tourist destination.
‘We’ve been trading on free living, campervan images of hippies living free, and that is costing us the earth, it is costing us Byron at the moment,’ said Ms Drover.
Why people come
Jan Barham says, ‘Council is doing a review of its Tourism Management Plan, but what they’re failing to do is look at the real attractors. Why do people come here? What is it that they come here for? And what’s our responsibility to protect that asset which is the attractor?’
‘Byron’s very much an insider destination,’ says David Jones. ‘It’s not marketed abroad, it’s not brochured. It doesn’t have a destination marketing plan. It doesn’t promote itself to anyone actually – it’s one of few destinations in Australia that doesn’t do that. It’s done it once with limited success. The demand that Byron gets is very much organic and perennial, and generational.’
He continues: ‘The mentality of a lot of people needs to change, if Byron’s going to maintain a sustainable and responsible visitor economy. A lot of local opinion is not based on any stats, it’s just conjecture, and that’s actually one of the biggest problems with Byron progressing and achieving something really beautiful and sustainable.’
Jan Barham’s history includes years on the regional and state tourism boards. ‘I see that we’ve lost our way in terms of understanding the real value of Byron in the overall tourism market,’ she said. ‘ Byron’s iconic status is because people love nature, they love the low scale. People resonate with it because it’s not like the rest of the world.’
Alison Drover believes ‘we could create a “protect and respect” marketing campaign that leverages the power of the brands that we have,to carry those messages. I think it would really make a difference.’
Future: not more development
In spite of the challenges ahead, Byron Bay’s activist history, and the passionate love of residents and visitors for its natural beauty and community potentially means that the holy grail of a sustainable and profitable tourism industry has a better chance of succeeding here than just about anywhere.
‘That’s the end-game right there,’ says David Jones. ‘It’s not more development, it’s not more visitors, it’s just refining the type of experience we offer and embrace, and its impact on the environment and the locals, that’s it.’