Easter Monday will mark seven weeks since floods swept through much of the NSW’s northern rivers region.
The question for thousands of potential holidaymakers to Byron Bay and beyond is now pressing: To go or not to go?
Floods are a fickle disaster, meaning some parts of far northern NSW are operating as normal, while others are in ruins. This means potential visitors must think carefully about where exactly they plan to travel.
“Byron Bay township itself was, luckily, very minimally affected and the majority of businesses in town are open as usual,” says Mick Webb, manager of Byron Bay’s Visitor Centre. “Yet, having been on the ground in Lismore and Mullumbimby, I feel people really need to understand the severity of the loss, destruction and burden that so many are dealing with. It’s actually hard to articulate how devastating this situation is.”
Peter Noble, executive chairman of Bluesfest Group, the region’s major annual Easter music festival, agrees. “It’s the worst thing that’s happened in our community ever,” he says. “The word ‘apocalyptic’ comes to mind. It’s heartbreaking to see.”
After cancellations in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19, Bluesfest is set to go ahead over Easter, despite some minor flooding. “Bluesfest will be happening pretty much as a normal event,” Noble says. “If you look hard enough you’ll see where the water went but we’ve almost dried out.” Given the scope of the devastation elsewhere, he added, “I don’t really want to talk about that small degree of loss.”
“We don’t want to have a depression out of this,” Noble says. “Bluesfest employs 1,000 people, 80-90% who are locals, including some who have lost their homes.”
Many other tourism ventures have also been able to move from clean-up processes to community crisis relief, and are now returning to business. After evacuating her own horses to safety, Kate Noller, owner of Byron-based riding school Zephyr Horses, says she ‘“spent most of the flood week in boats and choppers delivering bandages, fuel, water and hay to flood-affected horses”.
“Business is slowly picking up again now,” she says. “I know people are not coming to Byron because of the floods, but our businesses need visitors.”
Housing, already in crisis before the floods, is now a critical issue. Thousands of homes have been declared uninhabitable, with those residents joining thousands more living in temporary accommodation for weeks or months while homes are repaired.
Airbnb, a topic of contention in the region, has established a formal program to help accommodate locals, in conjunction with the Australian Red Cross. “We are extremely grateful for the generosity of our host community, who, through this effort … have been offering up their homes to those in need of free, temporary accommodation,” said Susan Wheeldon, Airbnb country manager.
There is concern from some areas of the community that locals may lose their temporary accommodation as peak holiday season approaches. Airbnb did not provide Guardian Australia comment on this concern.
Localresidents are also being housed in Airbnbs through informal arrangements. A local who manages seven Airbnb properties says they had suggested their clients offer their houses at significantly reduced rates to flood-affected families, which the property owners did.
The property manager, who the Guardian has chosen not to name, says the families in the properties they manage will be able to stay during the holidays, and noted that the homes were either already vacant over Easter, or that bookings had been cancelled due to the floods. “Our local families need any homes available and hopefully more people that run Airbnbs will also offer them up for this devastating period,” they said.
The Tweed coast escaped the worst of the February flooding – a relief for the community just south of Queensland after two years of border closures. “Hinterland roads are not in great shape but coastal areas are largely OK,” says Bradley Nardi, from the region’s tourism management company.
In contrast, John Walker, general manager for Lismore city council has a clear message for would-be visitors. “What little accommodation remains in Lismore is needed for tradespeople who are working on our recovery,” he says. “Due to the extensive damage from the recent flooding disaster, we ask that people love us from afar and not visit Lismore or its villages at this time.”
This message is echoed by Alicia Wallace, who leads visitor services at Ballina shire council. “While tour operators are desperate for business, car hire and accommodation are at capacity and we ask people to delay travel to after May.”
It has proved hard to forecast the likely availability of car hire in the region. Many rentals are being used by local people who lost vehicles in the floods, and by rescue workers. The Avis Budget Group declined to provide information on the availability of hire cars over the holiday period, but stated that customers could cancel reservations without penalty, “if it is a result of the flood emergency”.
Water quality may also be an issue. Ballina shire council’s water monitoring program warned of possible stormwater pollution due to flooding on 21 March, while Byron shire council reported unsafe E coli levels at a popular family beach in Brunswick Heads in mid-March, and a spokesperson stated that flood situations can “change the nature of the water for days and possibly weeks after the event”.
Telecommunications outages are also proving a major frustration, resulting from both flood damage as well as an unrelated fire in the Mullumbimby mobile tower.
Though the humidity is dropping and there are patches of sunny autumn weather, the Bureau of Meteorology’s forecast for April includes higher than usual rainfall.
If there is consensus across the flood-affected areas, it is that visiting at a later stage will be massively helpful for longer-term recovery. “Please come here and support all our local businesses,” says Lismore local Virginia Guyler, whose decision to leave for higher ground the evening before the floods saved her from being in her Lismore home when it was washed off its foundations. “What I would say to people is come, when the time is right.”
Local residents’ advice for would-be visitors
1. Don’t assume. The news has painted a realistically grim picture, but there’s huge variation across the northern rivers region.
2. Check. Business websites may not have been updated, so check social media and make direct contact about accommodation, car hire and activities. “Visitor Information Centres are great sources of local truth,” says Bradley Nardi.
3. Now is not the time to wing it. If you haven’t yet booked, be aware that accommodation or car hire may not be easy – or possible – to secure.
4. Manage your expectations. While holidays are a chance to escape from reality, these floods are too big to ignore. It may be odd seeing army trucks in Byron, but that’s life in the area right now. Though it is nice, as a visitor, to have your needs prioritised, be aware this won’t always be possible.
5. Don’t be a flood-tourist. It is natural to want to see the extent of the damage with your own eyes but this affects others’ privacy, your safety and recovery works. “Many of our roads sustained significant damage and are unsafe. Any increase in traffic will only make this worse,” says John Walker, Lismore council’s general manager.
6. Help is not always helpful. Turning up to a flood-affected community in shorts and thongs will not only not cut it, but can be dangerous. The only way to help out on the ground is through pre-planning specifics with individuals or recovery centres, and bringing all your own gear.
7. Help by spending and donating. Whether you go or postpone your visit, spend in person or online to support northern rivers’ businesses. Consider allocating a percentage of your holiday dollars to a flood-recovery fundraising cause.