NSW Local Govt Tourism Conference

Embrace the Changing Landscape

 I congratulate the organisers of this years’ conference for choosing the theme: Embrace the Changing Landscape

It is a thought provoking and stimulating theme, one that hopefully will stimulate lively debate and conversation.

It is an important topic because no doubt, all our individual council areas are having to face this same theme-how do we embrace a changing landscape-and still keep being who we are as a place and community?

Byron’s traditional ‘tourism’ or visitor landscape did not change in essence for thousands of years-as there was no need

Byron Bay, for the indigenous, was Cavanbah– the Meeting Place. Ever since human settlement, this area played host to vast numbers of visitors travelling great distances to dance, share culture and stories, feast, learn and teach. The locals acted as guardians to protect the place and ambassadors to welcome visitors and to ensure visitors and gatherings remained powerful, well managed and respectful.

Even as late as the early 1900’s, on Saturday nights, the Arakwal mob used to paint up and corroboree near what is now the Byron library and charged the recent arrivals sixpence to watch. It was the social highlight for both Awakwal and white settlers. Thus, it is part of the essence of this land that we share creativity, music and festive gatherings.

The tourist landscape for the white settler’s living here, the new, additional guardians- shifted and changed far more drastically.

Though early tourism began as soon as trains arrived in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, the main industries in town dominated, first timber, then dairy and butter, to fishing and sand mining and whaling and finally the meat works.

Tourism was relegated to a much smaller piece in the puzzle.

It was with the demise of the meat works and the imminent threat of social and economic collapse that tourism began to be viewed as the saviour for the town. It was initially decided by the town at the time that holiday letting, and small hotels and hostels would be the preferred model instead of high rise and condo’s-and we are grateful for that wise decision- though a decision that has created its own challenges now.

And so for the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, the tourism footprint grew slowly but surely and the community managed to find a relatively gentle way to benefit from it, without being too influenced by it. Perhaps it was because the tourists who were attracted to Byron and its community, wanted to sink into it, to look and feel like a local for the length of time visiting, and the night life was really just a low key time to break up the fun days.

The responsibility we face today is the same that the Awakwal successfully managed for thousands of years- ensuring the local guardian population is strong enough to keep the integrity of the land intact, to keep the integrity of the local population intact and to keep the place intact whilst remaining open to visitors.

I would argue that this is the responsibility we all face across all our council areas and across the whole tourism industry-supporting local communities and places so they can greet visitors in the manner that fits.

After all, we know in Byron, through visitor satisfaction surveys, visitors come here because of the special community that we are. We need to be allowed to remain special, as does the land upon which we all gather, whether it is to live or visit.

And it is crucial we get it right internally and get the right assistance externally. Regional areas are not immune to market and consumer demand challenges and at times regional areas feel the strain for longer and deeper.

The Tourism sector contributes to 1 in 3 jobs in this region – and those businesses investing in local job creation and training should be proud of their investment, they’re making a difference.

However, acknowledge and embrace the changing tourism landscape we can and must-both in Byron and as an industry. The challenges facing both Byron and I would suspect many tourism areas across the state are many and how we acknowledge the changing landscape and respond to it will define both the industry and our communities.

The community of Byron has acknowledged the need to embrace the changing landscape of tourism in its midst. We could no longer collectively sit a merely watch the tourism landscape mix and style change- and often in a negative way-increased day visitation, increased focus on our nighttime rather than the day. With anti-social behaviour at night and increased pressures on our residential amenity with the explosion of holiday letting, Council alongside our community have rolled up our sleeves to embark on strategic decision making to ensure tourism works more for us and instead of us for it. And we have seen the results of embracing this changing landscape. We have seen a significant shift in our visitor behaviour over the past 2 years in the Byron Shire. We have more to do and have further to go, but as a local Council we are working hard to support industry development and deliver on community expectations.

We are moving away from our Party Image and our tourism identity of Don’t Spoil Us, We’ll Spoil You resonates with locals and visitors. The tagline to visitors-‘don’t spoil us, we’ll spoil you’ is like our community-lovably brash. It seeks to see tourism in a new way, a way that understands a truly sustainable visitor industry begins with how it sits within and supports the local community, not just in employment, but in reflecting who we are, respecting who we are, adding to who we are and making living here better for the current guardians.

We are working together with industry to deliver this brand promise – a promise that is reciprocal in nature and clear on intent.

We are having fun with it – as you will see from some of the images around you this evening…. and using our quirky take on our strengths to cut through.

The challenge of holiday letting in residential areas is one we are also tackling: We know of the importance holiday letting plays in providing a popular accommodation option for visitors, though in Byron, we know only too well the impact it can have for residential neighbours and taking crucial housing stock out of the market from which locals can live.

As we work with our community we need a state government to work with us and acknowledge that an industry that is only valued economically is redundant and will lose a social license- the tourism industry, like a holiday letter needs to be a good neighbor and the state government needs to show it cares for community as well as economy and provide leadership in this area.

The challenge of meaning employment within the tourism industry is one we all know- let’s embrace the challenge of ensuring the tourism industry creates more careers, not just jobs, and let’s ensure that local kids have equal opportunities when competing against overseas travellers for work.

However, in Byron and no doubt many other high visitation centres, the greatest challenge facing us in the tourism industry is the infrastructure pressures it is placing on our community. From Spending an extra 4 million dollars when upgrading our sewerage treatment plant to cater for day visitation use, to employing a whole team tasked to beautify and clean our town, to the millions of dollars of extra costs in maintaining our roads used by the 700,000 day visitors- unique visitors each year- the financial impacts on our Council and our community is immense. And rates will never cover these costs in regional and rural areas especially.

The challenge and the new landscape we need to embrace I will suggest, includes funding bodies and the State government providing flexibility in how each place can receive support for its tourism impacts and industry.

For some, it may mean more event and product development, for others, more beautification and infrastructure support- however, when the industry actually looks at each community and place as guardians of that visitor experience, it will be natural for them to ask, “How can we help YOU, keep doing what YOU do, so people keep wishing to visit YOU and YOUR place?”

A case in point presented itself a year ago, when the State Government announced funding of $57 million to Taronga Zoo. They explained in the media the reason as thus:

 Mr Baird said Taronga Zoo, which attracts 1.4 million visitors each year, was a “jewel in the crown” for Sydney and must be revitalised. “You cannot be complacent and just sit back,” Mr Baird said.”Taronga Zoo for a while was allowed to be run down. Under the new leadership, and the new approach of the Government, we’re not letting that happen. This is a rare jewel not only in Sydney’s crown, but in the world’s crown in terms of zoos. The more people that visit, that drives the economy, that drives jobs and that’s great for the state.”

Sound familiar?

Byron is the ‘jewel in the crown’ for non-Sydney orientated tourism in the north. Byron needs ‘revitalisation’ to a degree unable to be provided by a financially hamstrung local government-just like Taronga Zoo needs government help. Unlike Taronga Zoo, we don’t receive it.

Byron Bay attracts more visitors than Taronga Zoo- infact, unlike Taronga Zoo which mainly provides an added attraction for visitors already in Sydney, Byron brings 700,000+ new visitors a year who come for the day, specifically from Qld, to Byron Bay, NSW.

The state government has been missing in action in supporting us to revitalise as tourism towns are not eligible for any State funding for tourism infrastructure ‘revitilisation.’ Funding is only available for more tourism products- must we build a wall around the town and charge admittance, so we can receive tourism funding?

And yet, it is obvious that better facilities would mean a better experience, and thus, more day visitors would return more often, or overnight visitors may stay longer, and that, “drives the economy, that drives jobs and that’s great for the state.”

Every reason to justify $57 million to the tourism ‘product’-Taronga Zoo -could also be made for the tourism product- Byron Bay, or Katoomba, or Kiama, or Port Macquarie. Even if we couldn’t justify being unique, imagine if the State government split $57 million between 10 tourist towns. $5.7 million to upgrade our toilets, main beach, infrastructure etc would minimise the biggest turn offs visitors have of Byron- oh, and residents would live the benefits everyday. Vivid Festival gets nearly $2 million per year funding for a 14 day event, imagine what your regional centre could do if you got $2 million per year for being a jewel in the crown tourism destination.

Byron is one of the most visited area outside Sydney and Melbourne and we don’t receive a cent for tourism infrastructure support from the State Government, as infrastructure renewal is not a new ‘product’. In Byron, like many other places, we don’t need new products, we just need financial support for run down infrastructure, then visitors receive a better experience, whilst residents receive a better town

UNESCO identifies sites as world heritage- the pyramids and the Great Barrier Reef. However, they also understand that whole towns are unique and special and make these too as world heritage.

What could happen if Destination NSW and our State government also saw towns as unique visitor experiences- that would be a changing landscape to embrace, as communities need, now more than ever, support to keep opening their towns to visitors.

Could Destination NSW and our State government embrace this changing landscape and support communities who wish to install a bed tax, in order to move very small individual contributions from visitors into a large pool of funds for a town to put back into making that place beautiful? Completely accepted and established across the world, a bed tax alone would change Byron’s financial outlook completely. Instead, we are left to installing parking meters.

If we wish for many of our wider communities to embrace tourism, rather than merely put up with it, we need to ensure the tourism industry and its funding bodies, support the needs of these local communities, these guardians of our tourism places.
How do we begin this conversation? Is there a benefit of our councils banding together to advocate better for our needs to be met? Could an alliance of regional tourism councils effectively start the conversation and advocate for flexible, appropriate funding and support that we need?

If many of our local Tourism organisations are struggling and we often don’t even put applications in for funding because we can’t fit the criteria, would it be a good idea for us to come together to advocate for change?

Over these next two days, I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions and suggestions.

Byron Council has come to embrace the understanding that tourism success for us has come through partnerships and collaboration to provide unique and fulfilling visitor experiences.

Like Tourism as an industry, Byron is more than one visitor experience. We are more than our incredible beaches or the green cauldron that wraps our coastline. More than food, creative arts, health and wellbeing, boutique shopping, vibrant nightlife, quirky towns and villages, global hippies and laidback lifestyle.

Like the tourism industry, Byron has the ability to change to reinvent. It has a heart beat that dances to its own tune.

Byron is alive with colour and a spirit that is strong and protective. And for that I am grateful. On behalf of the local guardians of Cavanbah, of Byron bay and of the whole Byron Shire, I welcome you all and wish the next two days provides all the stimulation, invigoration and inspiration you seek.

Thank You.