It
takes the decking of a fish-kissing celebrity for the national media to
focus on the real problems facing Byron Bay rather than run the usual
vapid gloss on ferals, drugs or real estate prices. Rex Hunt’s claims,
however, that Byron is more dangerous than Bali and that he was
attacked because he was a tourist are just plain silly. The initial
story in the regional daily The Northern Star was something of
melodramatic beat-up, too, though one can only admire the attention to
detail in sentences such as “The smell of hot dogs hung in the air.”

That
said, violence and the darker impacts of tourism are daily occurrences
in Byron Bay. A large part of the problem is the volatile mix of
alcohol and testosterone. Young men pour out of the pubs and clubs in
the early hours of the morning, some of them looking for a bit of
bovver, and even some intent on sexual assault. To compound the problem
they run into local youth bored out of their brains.

The problem
is home-grown as well as introduced by visitors. Even if celebrities
stopped coming and Byron Bay ceased to be the flavour of the decade,
there would still be the sociological crises of a growing coastal town
under development pressures. The upgrade of the Pacific Highway would
still ensure that visitors from the Gold Coast and Brisbane flock down
for a hot weekend.

While local businesses welcome tourists for
their money – just how many coffee shops can one town support? – there
are many local residents who feel dispossessed and especially many
local youth who feel their needs take a back seat to the pleasures of
visiting schoolies. These are long-term issues which cannot be solved
in the shock horror stories in the media. The main issue is community
safety and one which current mayor Jan Barham has conscientiously taken
on board. While the state government has come to the party in the past
to help fund New Years Eve celebrations so the town doesn’t turn into a
war zone, there is no ongoing funding of that sort for cash-strapped
coastal councils.

So yes, tourists and young women should be cautious late at night – paradise is not all it’s made out to be.