Byron Bay is a popular tourist town that attracts 1.3 million per year. Visitors seem to be attracted by the beautiful environment and laid back life style, but are all too often these very things find themselves under pressure from the shear number of visitors and the lack of understanding and respect some can show while they are here.
The impact of over a million visitors on a town of 7,000 and a shire of 29,000 is considerable, but let’s not kid ourselves Tourism contributes $509 million pa to the local economy and is by far the biggest industry. I do hear locals often refer to tourists in a derogatory way but without the money the tourists bring with them, Byron would struggle. (Fact and figures on local tourism can be found on the Research Tourism Website)
The impact of infrastructure of over a million visitors not inconsequential, which causes the resources of Byron Shire Council to be over-stretched and the locals who pay the rates feeling “ripped off’. It is unlawful for the council to charge a bed tax, and they have no real way of charging these million of so people to pay for their impact on roads, waste management, or the environment.
On top of the impact on infrastructure there is also a social impact. Visitors are attracted by the laid back life-style but often sometimes bring their anger and intolerance which can cause conflict. And quite Byron often hits the news for all the wrong reasons.
So what’s the answer to this complex set of problems? We need visitors to lessen their impact on the environment and to respect the local culture. That sounds like eco-tourism to me.
Eco-tourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” (TIES, 1990)
There are a few eco-tourism operators and accommodation places in Byron but they are in the minority, which is weird as the local chamber of commerce recently ran the Byron Naturally campaign. The problem with the campaign was that very few of the businesses featured were eco-tourism businesses, they just seemed to have loads of money to jump of the nature band-wagon. Personally I didn’t have $1000’s to join the relevant organisations and pay for TVCs and print campaigns. It also costs quite a lot of money to be accredited with Eco-Tourism Australia. Some of us small operators have quality eco-tourism products but simply don’t have the bank roll to pay for all the membership, campaigns and accreditation.
As a local eco-tourism operator at Vision Walks, I take people on nature-based experiences, they learn about the natural and human history, we tell local stories, we discuss local environmental issues, we use local products and other local businesses and more importantly we discuss the social contract people who live in this area engage in. It would be great if we could offer an opportunity for visitors to give something back to the local community in terms of their time or a specific skill. This would be more than just planting a tree.
What I’d like to see happen is the building of an interpretation centre or perhaps an app, which would include, interactive environmental and cultural displays and perhaps a short film. While engaging they do a short questionnaire and it suggests an local issue they should adopt, then they are given an opportunity to address that issue or to own it. It could include: picking up 50 bits of rubbish, volunteering with a local group (dune care, land care, rainforest rescue), writing something, getting 10 friends to sign a petition, be nice to a stranger, help someone, dig a hole, fill in a hole, plant something, fix something, paint something, doing something creative… Local tourism businesses then go for an Byron Eco Accreditation (for a small cost), where by they have to prove their sustainability credentials and what they will contribute to the running of the local issues. E.g sign a petition, running volunteers etc. This way everyone is giving something back, it doesn’t cost much money but everyone is engaged.