With “schoolies” celebrations now over and New Year’s Eve fast approaching, spare a thought for the challenges faced by children and young people growing up in popular tourism hot spots.
Let’s take the beautiful northern New South Wales coastal town of Byron Bay as an example. At the end of each year, young school leavers flood Byron Bay in pursuit of a rite of passage experience that many of their parents would prefer not to know about.
But there is another story here that is often overlooked. How do young residents of these places negotiate the challenges of growing up in a community widely acclaimed as a “party” destination? And how do the very public narratives portrayed in the media shape the experiences of young people growing up in a place like Byron Bay?
My recent doctoral research, in which I interviewed 74 young people in Byron shire aged between 10 and 24, sheds light on young residents’ views and experiences.
It is estimated that an annual average of 1.7 million tourists visit Byron Shire, with 704,000 being domestic overnight visitors. While the party reputation of Byron Bay and its popularity with young backpackers and schoolies is now a given, there is little consideration about the impact of this on the 2800 young people who live there. Some of the issues and concerns raised in this research include safety, belonging and the environment.
The biggest concern raised by young residents is the perceived lack of safety that they often feel at times like schoolies and New Year’s Eve. The “demonstration effect” of alcohol and drug consumption, which is sensationalised in the media, has widespread implications.
Children and young people growing up in these communities are witnessing a holiday lifestyle on a regular basis, including the party frenzy and alcohol and drug-fuelled behaviours that are on display at times like schoolies.
This is confusing: they see people having fun all the time, but don’t consider that these same tourists go home to a seemingly normal life after the holiday. This may have important implications for their wellbeing in the long term, particularly when they are drawn to join the celebrations.
Isabella, 15, said:
I don’t feel safe due to intoxicated people. I know that because of the reputation that it’s a party town, I’m not allowed to come to Byron at night, which I don’t want to because there are just too many people that are passing through.
The other concern raised by young people in Byron Shire is the shrinking sense of community as more and more places become overcrowded and commercialised. Young people’s sense of belonging is challenged at peak tourist times, when crowded spaces and unfamiliar faces contribute to feelings of alienation and displacement.
Many also worry about their future. Tammy, 24, said:
It kind of scares me because it means that people can’t live here anymore as they can’t afford the rent and things like that! I suppose that’s just tourism, that’s how it works, it’s for the privileged.
The rise of holiday-letting and AirBnb have also led to a lack of affordable housing in the area. As more and more families are forced to move out of the region, the social structure of the communities in the Byron Shire region is changing.
For young people still living in the area, usual neighbours are replaced by a continuous flow of visitors who book through platforms such as AirBnb. This only adds to feelings of anxiety and alienation.
Children and young people growing up in the region are also acutely aware of the impacts of tourism activity on the environment. Young people are concerned about the visible effects of tourism and the lack of respect that travellers, and in particular young school leavers, have for the environment.
Littering on the beaches, streets and parks in Byron Bay is a common problem at peak party times.
Young residents argue that these behaviours are frustrating. They actively take up stewardship of the natural environments in the community by participating in beach clean-ups and awareness campaigns to educate the visiting tourists. As 21-year-old Jack said:
It’s disappointing to see people come to supposed paradise, the place where they’re expecting to be clean and beautiful and pristine, then they leave it in such a state. It’s just disrespectful.
Like other areas such as the Gold Coast, Byron Bay is a popular destination with young school leavers who consider it their “party town”. But let’s not forget that it is also the home of many young locals. More education and awareness is needed about these important issues which significantly shape young people’s lives.