Paradise lost: The destinations that tourism ruined

Chasing after cashed-up travellers is a risky business, writes Nigel Bowen. As seen in Airlie Beach, the easy tourist dollar might destroy the golden goose.

For as long as anyone can remember, Airlie Beach (“the gateway to the Whitsundays”) has been a backpacker town, the kind of place full of hostels and raucous pubs packed with twentysomething Scandinavians getting drunk on $10 jugs of beer. But no more. Airlie Beach has looked at towns such as Byron Bay and thought, ‘We’ll have some of that, thanks’.

And by ‘some of that’ they mean the patronage of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road tourists of the kind who spend up big during the day and stay out of trouble at night. (As opposed to the rather more familiar type of visitor who lives on two-minute-noodles and is prone to engaging in noisy sexual congress in local parks after pub closing time.)

With barely disguised distaste for all those who made the town what it is today the local tourism authority, Whitsundays Marketing and Development, is frantically trying to rebrand Airlie as ‘the new Byron Bay’ (expect to see a rash of articles on that theme in the months to come).

The town has had a $20 million revamp and, according to the CEO of Whitsundays Marketing and Development, is keen to drive a stake through the heart of the backpacker town reputation and “move it to the next level”.

A tourist town wanting to attract cashed-up, fiftysomething German dentists rather than tightfisted British teenagers on a gap year is one of those strategies that seems to make perfect economic sense but ultimately doesn’t. Just as every takeaway shop can’t simply exponentially increase its profits by relaunching as a five-star restaurant, every coastal holiday destination with an eye on the main chance can’t just rebrand itself as the new Byron Bay.

One of those strategies that seems to make perfect economic sense but ultimately doesn’t.

The problem facing the good burghers of Airlie Beach is that there’s already an old Byron Bay for upmarket tourists to go to, not to mention the likes of Qualia and Hayman Island a short ferry or plane trip away. Frankly, it’s going to take rather more than zhushing up the main drag and the opening of a few cafes charging $8 for a soy latte to attract your discerning, high-net-worth individual to Airlie Beach.

What’s far more likely to happen is Airlie Beach’s traditional customers – not only foreign backpackers but also low to middle income Australians wanting an affordable beach holiday – will get the message they are no longer welcome and head elsewhere (to some neighbouring seaside village destined to become known as “the new Airlie Beach”) while the much lusted-after big spenders fail to materialise in anything like the numbers projected.

End result? The people of Airlie Beach will find themselves stranded in the not particularly lucrative no-mans-land between ‘backpacker town’ and ‘five-star resort’ while yet another vibrant, if somewhat raffish, holiday destination will have been ruined by an ill-conceived cash grab.

Other holiday destinations being ruined by gentrification

Johannesburg, South Africa
There’s something deeply wrong about having to pay through the nose for accommodation you’ve risked a carjacking to get to.

London, United Kingdom
Granted, London has been pricey since the glory days of the British Empire but now even the rough areas once famous for drugs and race riots, such as Brixton, have been turned into bourgeois theme parks.

Barcelona, Spain
Once a playground for povo artists – both local and expat – Barcelona now revels in its status as a global city and chases after the convention dollar.

Acapulco, Mexico
A seaside playground famous for facilitating quickie divorces has become a would-be Cancun determined to sanitise anything that could disturb international visitors.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
There’s nothing like winning the Olympics to motivate politicians to do something about the host city’s seamy underbelly and Rio is getting a spring clean in the lead up to 2016.

Reno, Nevada, USA
The ‘biggest little city in the world’ is now going through the same blandification Las Vegas did when the Mob sold off its casinos to big corporations.

Hong Kong, China
Real estate has never been cheap in Honkers but once upon a time great Chinese food, adequate lodgings and, most especially, shopping was. But post-Communist take-over, only successful capitalists can afford to visit.

Pattaya, Thailand
Yep, even a town that once summoned up images of lady boys and unconventionally propelled ping-pong balls is now being turned into a family-friendly beachside resort.

Jakarta, Indonesia
For those accustomed to paying Bali prices, Indonesia’s capital city is a rude shock. Given recent events, it’s probably best to steer clear for both political and financial reasons.

Berlin, Germany
It’s jarring to hear Germans complain about being invaded but the residents of Berlin’s bohemian neighbourhoods are justifiably enraged about being priced out by well-heeled tourists and other gentrifiers.