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Editorial |  :

As 'Van lifers' flock to Byron Bay, the town is struggling to reconcile its reputation with the costs of tourism

Edging through the logjam of traffic along Ewingsdale Road, a car horn offers an unlikely reprieve from the tedious hum of engines.

"Welcome to Byron Bay," reads a wooden sign in the distance. "Cheer up, slow down, chill out."

It is, in many ways, an apt reflection of the Byron dichotomy — a city both trapped and liberated by its own reputation.

With roots in the counterculture movement, the coastal paradise is renowned as a mecca for backpackers, the rich and famous and everyone in between.

A place, as one Vanity Fair writer offered, where "nomadic broods" come to "find their tribes on life's journey".

But with Byron's visitor numbers eclipsing its permanent population, the local community has found itself at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile this "free-living" ethos with the inexorable costs of tourism.

And as "van lifers" increasingly seep into the suburbs, it is ordinary residents who have suddenly found themselves bearing the brunt of tourism's ugly side: motorhomes lining residential streets, human waste on front lawns, and authorities trying in vain to keep it under control.

"As an area, we're too open to contradiction," muses Alison Drover, who has lived in Byron for 10 years.

"We're known as being free-spirited and open to everything, but it doesn't really serve us in some ways.

"We're being sort of trampled on."

'They're just not paying anything to be here'

At a quaint cafe off Marvell Street, just a stone's throw from the world-renowned Main Beach, Drover gestures across the road.

A row of nondescript vans lines the nature strip bordering a luxury guest house that bills $500 a night.

Tourists are setting up camp in residential areas, she says, "and they're just not paying anything to be here".

"The reason why it's getting worse is because there's no recourse."

Drover is, of course, referring to the "van life" phenomenon: a bohemian social media movement underpinned by the ideas of minimalism and freedom.

Peruse the 9 million-odd posts dedicated to the hashtag on Instagram, and you might come to understand the appeal.

Between images of slick van conversions are shots of nomads opening their back doors to the kinds of views most only dream of waking up to ("Home is where you park it," one post reads).

And increasingly, that home is Byron.

Between December 24 to January 2 alone, a total of 1,454 infringement notices were issued by the local council, the majority for illegal camping and parking.

Camping in streets, parks and reserves in Byron Shire is prohibited, and those who flout the law risk on-the-spot fines of between $110 and $2,200.

"It's not pleasant for the guests to wake up anywhere in Byron and see people out the front of their accommodation when they're paying good money to stay there," says Jack, a local gardener who emerges from the guest house.

"It's not just here, it's all of the hotels around here."

'The respect is different'

On the surface, it could be easy to dismiss the problem as a simple case of the haves vs the have-nots — young backpackers trying to pursue an Australian rite of passage in a town marred by a jarring wealth inequality that's hard to ignore ("It's not like anyone can afford to live here anymore anyway," one local quips).

But look a little closer, and it's not hard to understand why the issue is proving so divisive.

"We don't feel safe," says Julia*, a single mother, whose street has become a haven for travellers, many of whom "use the front yard as a toilet". (Julia asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.)

"Especially when there's people out the front in the night-time, you know, [the kids] wake up and they go, 'Mummy, what's that?'

"I get woken up at three o'clock in the morning because [people in vans are] arguing — sometimes it's because they're drunk, sometimes they're arguing because they're having a domestic."

For those left grappling with the fallout, these problems have become a sticking point.

It's not that they're anti-tourism. For the most part, the community appears to have embraced its nomadic reputation and the kind of people it inevitably attracts.

But for long-term residents, who are concerned that growing tourist numbers are outpacing infrastructure, it boils down to a simple question: How would you feel if, night after night, a group of strangers called your front lawn home?

"There is some friction between people living here and people free-living, because the respect is different, says local resident Sally Miller, who says she's watched tourists hop out of their cars and urinate in front of children in the street.

"I'd never walk away from the car and leave a plastic bottle of, you know, bodily product."

'There's an uneasy tension'

For Simon Richardson, the mayor of the Byron Shire Council, it's a topic that evokes mixed feelings.

He, too, spent part of his youth as a "van packer" travelling through Europe and America.

"I'd like to think I cared about the community and did the right thing," he offers, "but I was a 19-year-old with his mates, you know — I was probably a bit loose."

Like many in the community, Richardson struggles to reconcile Byron's "free-living" ethos with the reality of burgeoning visitor numbers, but says "different locals have different perspectives" on the issue.

That division, he adds, is symptomatic of a much larger tug-of-war taking place.

"At what point do we open ourselves up as that ... relaxed type of atmosphere and community without getting the mickey taken out of us for that?" he says.

"People coming in and are freeloading, to a certain extent, you know — there's an uneasy tension over that."

As the "van life" phenomenon explodes in popularity across the globe, the Byron community has found itself up against a wall.

The local council has, and will continue to, enforce restrictions on illegal camping, says Richardson, who points to the challenges of trying to catch people flouting the law in the act: "If someone's been drinking, for example, we can't get them to drive away and leave," he says.

But in many ways, they are hamstrung. Councils in New South Wales are prohibited from wheel clamping — something Richardson believes "could change things tomorrow" if they had the power to do so.

"Our hands are sort of tied, we literally have to have paid staff to go around to write fines ... knowing that a whole chunk of them aren't going to get paid," he says.

"So while that's the case, people take the piss, really, and do what they want and worry about it later.

Based on story by | By Bridget Judd

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