JUST over 50 years ago, Bells Beach was almost inaccessible and hardy surfers would bush-bash their way to Victoria's most famous reef break.
Now the iconic beach is struggling to cope with 1 million visitors each year, which has fuelled tensions between tourism operators and many board-riders, who reckon their ''sacred site'' is being destroyed by as many as 50 tourist buses each day.
The simmering feud has spilled over in recent weeks, amid allegations from both sides of verbal altercations, physical threats and vandalism.
As the swell builds for next week's 51st Rip Curl Pro, a host of prominent surfers, including 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, are poised to join the fray and publicly back the campaign to protect Bells.
The Surf Coast Council and state government are embroiled in a difficult balancing act; protecting the fragile coastal reserve while also promoting the tourism that delivers a vital source of income to the region.
The council has begun work on a new parking bay for tourist buses near the entrance of the Bells Beach reserve, with all large coaches banned from entering the two existing cliff-top car parks.
A licensing system is also expected to be introduced by July that would raise funding for maintenance of the reserve and improvements to tourist infrastructure.
But the vocal surfing lobby, including the Bells Beach Preservation Society, argue the council's plan will attract an extra 550 tourists each day, which would transform the heritage-listed sanctuary into a ''theme park''.
Last Thursday, AFL commentator and passionate surfer Gerard Healy met with Tourism Minister Louise Asher in a bid to persuade the government to stem the tide of tourist buses.
Surf Coast Council mayor Brian McKiterick says the issue has been hijacked by a vocal minority who consider Bells their private domain.
''It's clear there is a fringe minority group of people intent on trying to intimidate people at Bells, issuing misleading statements and damaging infrastructure that's there to protect the reserve's natural environment and manage the impacts of growing visitation,'' Cr McKiterick said.
''There has never been any push by the council to turn Bells into a 'theme park' or to commercialise or develop the site,'' he said.
But Bells Beach Preservation Society president Maurice Cole accuses the council of engaging in ''spin and lies'' to boost tourism at the expense of surfers and the local community.
''We have commercial operators who are running their businesses in our reserve. They take up car parks, leave toilets in a filthy state and throw litter all over the place. The shire spends $100,000 a year to look after them, but won't spend a cent on us,'' Mr Cole said.
Mr Cole, a former Victorian champion, said surfers had a custodial relationship with the reserve that was under threat from bus companies, which use the iconic beach as a whistlestop en route to the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles.
''We're not opposed to tourism at all, but we think another approach has to be looked at. They need to encourage tourists to stay the night, rather than stopping for a piss and a cigarette,'' Mr Cole said.
Other board-riders are unperturbed by the mobs of Chinese and Japanese tourists that make the pilgrimage to Victoria's Surf Coast.
''We don't own Bells Beach, it's for everyone. What these tourists are doing is surfing with their eyes. They actually help bring money to the area and that's been used to improve infrastructure,'' said John Dunlop, 48, of Melbourne.
Peter Dyer, 63, of Barwon Heads, has surfed Bells for 40 years and reckons the recent influx of tourists needs to be put in perspective.
''It can be a bit annoying when they all arrive at once, but it's definitely not wrecking the place.
''They often want to take photographs and seem to think I'm some star surfer when I'm just a hack,'' Mr Dyer said.
Victorian Coastal Council chairwoman Libby Mears said compromise was needed on both sides.
''Everyone loves the coast and we need to find a way to accommodate a very broad range of needs, without ruining what it is that makes Bells so special,'' Ms Mears said.