I remember something a man told me. Move up here, he said, and you will soon find a job.
He was an optimistic type, extroverted, healthy and prosperous looking. For a real estate agent that was probably a good image to project. And he might be have been right about finding work - if you are a real estate agent. Byron Bay has a disproportionate number of such businesses for so small a town and it’s probably no coincidence that this little coastal town of 9,000 is second only to Sydney in housing prices.
The estate agent’s advice about jobs seemed a little off as I got to know the place. The New South Wales North Coast region - despite a substantial population gain since surfers started to move in during the 1970s to be followed in successive decades by alternatives, seachangers, retirees and assorted refugees from the city - retains a high level of unemployment and underemployment. The Lismore employment office, so I was informed, serves the most highly educated unemployed demographic in the country. Talk to local people and you quickly discover the lack of employment is a theme. Locals take what work they can find.
The surfing industry is a local success story. Board manufacturers and retailers found their niche when surfers became the first of the city crowd to reinhabit the place decades ago. In more recent years, a number of surfing schools have opened for business and they live off the summer tourist influx, in particular the backpacking end of the tourism market. The prominence of the surfing industry explains why locals reacted negatively to recent criticism by a government minister of the local high school for offering a subject in surfing studies. He was speaking to highlight his own political agenda, whatever that was, and had spoken without knowledge of the local economy, locals charged. Better that he had kept his mouth shut, some suggested.
The Byron employment situation is exemplified by the experience of a middle aged resident who found he couldn’t find work in his usual field. So he applied repeatedly for administrative jobs with Byron Shire Council, jobs he could easily do, but failed to even get shortlisted. As someone explained to him later, there are more than enough people in the region who do those jobs as their usual work.
It is because of lack of work that people who move to the area sometimes sell up and move out again, disappointed that there is no livelihood for them - when you talk to people in town this is the story you hear. They arrive full of hope, perhaps having spoken to people like that optimistic real estate agent, but find the reality different.
Demographer Bernard Salt identified the trend in moving to coastal areas. This is reality but with people moving in, how do they find a livelihood? Many new residents are retirees but others are potential first home owners, young families unable to afford Sydney’s sky-high housing prices. On discovering the lack of work, some keep on keep going through Byron to Brisbane, just two hours up the highway.
Tourism - plague or opportuity?
If employment is an ongoing issue in town, then so is tourism. Tourism, in fact, is the source of controversy both on account of the town’s experience with proposed big developments and because of its impact on the town itself.
Townspeople defeated proposals for an “educational facility” near Broken Head in the late 1980s and, in the 1990s, blocked Club Med’s plans for a big resort. The most recent fight has been against the Becton proposal for the Cape Byron Resort, though the state minister responsible has now given the go-ahead for a modified plan that would be acceptable to many. However, the intervention of Macquarie Street will not go down well. Before that, the Harvey Norman development near Suffolk Park caused local enmity, especially the millionaire’s criticism of Byron Shire Council.
The year 2005 brought ongoing resentment of tourism to a head, ironic as this seems for a town the livelihood of which relies mainly on visitors. Locals find themselves in the bind of knowing that livelihoods and the local economy depend on the influx of visitors but that this influx changes the town around them.
Talk to Byron residents and you hear comments about the town not being the place they moved to years ago, that it has changed and is now a “town for visitors, not locals”. Change has been visible these last 15 years. Lawson Street has been rebuilt as cafes, coffee lounges, real estate agencies, surf shops and clothing stores and backpacker tourism has co-opted Jonson Street, the main thoroughfare, down towards the post office.
Byron’s reputation as a “party town” is partly to blame for this and the town itself surely has to take some responsibility, resented as it is by a surprising number of residents. Last New Year, council was forced to act on local resentment of the New Year’s Eve street party, with its tourist drunkenness and the way visitors left the town resembling a trash heap.