Byron’s iconic brand identity; the quintessential campervan with a surfboard, towel and sometimes a guitar, has morphed into a new genre of camper, the ‘free camper’.
Vehicles now include an assortment of models and sizes of vans, cars, converted removal trucks and buses. Others just pitch a tent.
There is a new attitude too. These campers claim they have a right to stay, anywhere. It’s a new way of living the dream – and the bill’s on us. They are leaving local communities to clean up their shit, pick up their rubbish, put out their fires and fix up their damage to the natural environment.
All on social media
Social media and marketing are fuelling this free-living lifestyle as it is Instagrammed and blogged as a desired way of living. The numbers are growing, and the failure of local authorities to move people on is encouraging more.
People ‘free camp’ boldly around the Byron Shire, popping their hood or sliding their door wherever they please. Waterside views are hot at Belongil Beach and Main Beach carpark. The Pass, Cosy Corner and Broken Head are so popular that vans monopolise surf spots the whole day to get the advantage of staying overnight.
Others prefer a hilltop view, so Scarrabellotti’s Lookout is a fave. Then there’s the streets of Suffolk Park to ensure good beach access, as well as plenty wanting the Mullumbimby experience. Those that really want to push their luck head for local Nature Reserves like those at Torakina and North Wall at Brunswick Heads.
There is nothing free about ‘free camping,’ – it’s costing local communities economically, socially and environmentally.
Ratepayers are indirectly covering water bills as many free campers, eschewing campsites, make use of public toilets and showers.
The amount of excrement that is left near pathways, on riverbanks and in car parks is becoming a serious health issue. As for waste disposal, Council’s illegal dumping accounted for well over $100k last year. Council has not confirmed if enforcement budgets have increased in line with tourism. However, anecdotally, it is still inadequate.
Locals are resorting to verbal threats, abusive notes, and leaving their lights on as a deterrent. While there is a 24-hour number at Council, there are no rangers on at night, so it is left to police or the new breed of community vigilante to respond. Police agree it’s a major issue, but have to prioritise their responses against their other duties.
Many of the free campers are tourists from overseas and interstate and are not homeless. Homelessness in the region is a serious issue and one that needs compassion, time, and more resourcing to create effective outcomes.
Bushfire – drought
The impact of climate change and dangerous new fire conditions are presenting more concerns regarding free camping. On one of the highest fire-danger days in the Byron Shire last year there were campers parked in local nature reserves cooking on open stoves in tinder-dry conditions.
While Byron Shire Council states it has a zero tolerance policy, it clearly is not working. It is going to take a collaborative effort with community engagement and state funding to manage free camping effectively.
Paying for something is an exchange, a level of respect, and a commitment. There are more than 15 campsites around the Shire starting at $20 a night. Surely we are worth this?
Respect and protect
Solutions do exist, however, it needs prioritizing, and engagement from business, community and other relevant stakeholders, including Byron Shire Council, police and National Parks.
I would suggest maximum fines of $2,200, rather than the minimum of $110 could be issued as a deterrent.
Destination NSW and other tourism bodies have a responsibility to introduce education messaging that addresses free camping and the associated issues.
Business has a vested interest. Many of our Byron brands trade on images of our iconic beaches and nature reserves and they trade on this free-living imagery. These businesses need to get engaged in these issues and use their marketing prowess to assist in cultivating a culture of respect.
Let’s start by adding a Respect and Protect Byron hashtag to every swing tag, coaster, shopfront, Instagram post, and commercial press release. Launch a Pay to Stay in Byron Bay campaign that will work on a collaborative tourism business engagement strategy to devise and support a marketing strategy that talks to these folk.
Around the bed tax
A creative solution around the bed tax is to have a single day, weekly or monthly Byron visitors pass that has to be purchased by every visitor. All vehicles would need to provide details of accommodation and time of stay. Rangers would be able to identify vehicles without a pass, and they could be fined, or asked to leave until they have purchased one.
The money we save in managing the issues of illegal camping could help to fund programs to support homeless people. It would provide a ‘public’ tourism income that we urgently need.
At the point of purchase Byron Council could provide information airdropped to their smartphone, like fire safety, driving conditions, local laws and some Indigenous cultural and educational information.
There are decisions to be made, if illegal camping continues in the current vein, around how we manage our natural areas so that vehicles can’t physically access them at night.
As I type these last words I am told that two doofs have taken place – one at Tallows and the other at Goonengerry National Parks. Around 150 people would have camped overnight with no toilets or water. The areas have been trashed, rubbish left, and again our environment has been put at risk of bushfire.
Mmm, the price of freedom.
♦ Alison Drover is a resident of Byron Shire.