Big Question Marks

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Death of Surfers?

For the past few weeks, I've been doing a bit of work for an organization in Surfers Paradise that works with city council to organize events and marketing for the suburb. It's been one of the most interesting jobs I've had, mostly because what I've learned in this short time about our town is astounding.

Surfers Paradise is a beautiful place on the beach, built on tourism and living perpetually in holiday mode. It's full of restaurants, hotels, shopping, and attractions like mini golf and wax museums, and the weather is pretty great year-round. For decades, it's been the place Aussies would holiday to with their families, it's the place where high school kids celebrate the end of their school years (Schoolies Week) and it's where international backpackers come to party, enroll in English courses, and soak up the sun. People come to have fun here, and then they come back again because it's such a great place to be. This has been going on for years and years, and so construction companies just kept building, and people keep opening more businesses up here. But realistically, this kind of success couldn't really go on forever.

These days Surfers is full of "For Lease" signs on storefronts and "Vacancy" broadcasted from hotel signs. It seems more and more shops are disappearing all the time, and the sidewalks are sometimes empty enough to envision a tumbleweed blowing through. There's even a totally vacant shopping mall on the main street, hidden behind a few shops that are still open (for now at least). We've been noticing this more and more the longer we stay, but what truly hammered in this point was taking on a work assignment where I ended up chatting up local business owners and managers about the state of Surfers.

Contest at Sin City nightclub
No one is entirely sure of the real reason why Surfers has lost so many visitors, but the consensus is, business began getting slower in the last three years or so and is now at an all-time low. And something's gotta give! Is it the global economy keeping international visitors away? Is the high Aussie dollar simply making it a better deal for Australians to holiday in Bali instead? Or has Surfers simply lost its former lustre/sense of fun/wholesomeness? Some say that Surfers has become too much of a party town, gotten a really bad reputation, and now families are staying away or heading to other suburbs on the Gold Coast (well, with a bar strip full of drunken hooligans roaming the street nearly every night, and some nightclubs offering a contest to win a boob job, it's no wonder). Others say that town planners and restaurants are trying to get too fancy/expensive and it's forcing families to eat at KFC when they holiday — we'd have to agree with this argument too, as we've been unable to rationalize spending a small fortune ($20 a plate AT LEAST) on a Thai or an Italian dinner. Some are saying that we need to encourage locals from other suburbs to visit, but the city keeps raising the cost of street parking ($2 an hour now I'm told) in Surfers but not in other suburbs, which is working against promoting local business as well. And it's not just Surfers that is suffering: newspapers are reporting Gold Coast with the highest unemployment rate in Australia (government reports are saying it's around 7%, though some are saying it's probably closer to 13% unemployment — some timing for our arrival!), thanks to both the lull in tourism and the collapse of some of the biggest construction companies/investors.

It's not happy days for Surfers Paradise, but underneath all of that, what I encountered most in longtime locals was a real nostalgia for what the place once was (it was the most exciting place in Australia to spend a week, or simply a laid-back beach town, etc.) and a strong belief that it'll make a comeback, with some careful resuscitation. Some people think some twinkly lights along the streets might liven up the atmosphere. Some say we need a better arts culture (me included) and perhaps some quality entertainment, beyond buskers (ugh)— like a music festival to get people coming back. Agreed! I've actually just signed on to work with the same organization for the next few months (I start my new job this week!), to help run the upcoming Surfers Paradise Festival in June/July and a bunch more events following that, so I'm extra excited now to find out what will happen to this place. And I'm not quite sure when it happened, but I think somewhere along the way, perhaps while I was meeting so many lovely locals, and discovering all the hidden gems of this weird and wonderful place, I think I'm starting to lose a little piece of my heart in this town, too. -D.