From Byron Baes to Bondi Sand: What happens when a destination becomes a brand

I started watching Netflix's reality series, Byron Baes, on a flight. Altitude does funny things to your mind.

The eight-part series is an Instagram-heavy soap opera about a group of "Australian influencers [who] flock to Byron Bay for its warm, beachy beauty and cool, creative vibe," according to the promo.

Life's too precious to spend even a second of it on confected wars between "influencers", "entrepreneurs" and ex-dating show contestants, even if it's shot against a background of hunky surfers slo-mo running into the waves.

But I found it interesting on one level. There are some destinations, which through marketing or just happenstance, become more than a place but a brand. Byron is one of them.

For a few years I lived in Tribeca in New York City. When we moved there it was a rather sleepy neighbourhood, like a country town, where most of the residents knew each other. And then it morphed into "Tribeca."

For decades, artists had colonised the neighbourhood's cheap warehouse loft spaces, which had emptied when the commercial markets closed or were redeveloped.

Robert de Niro was a long-time resident and slowly other celebrities began to move into the neighbourhood. By the 1990s, loft prices went sky high, as did rents. Many artists moved out or sold up and the hedge fund bankers moved in.

Tribeca became shorthand for a lifestyle – wealthy, successful creative people and celebrities living in expensive lofts wearing cream coloured cashmere and raising big dogs. Interior design and pricey furniture stores sprung up. Subaru released a Tribeca SUV in 2005. Tribeca became Triburbia.

Bondi is also a brand. I remember its shabby days, when our top floor panoramic ocean view apartment set us back $130 a week. Like Tribeca, it was edgy, a bit rough, certainly in the bleak months of winter.

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Now it's "Bondi," a contradictory mishmash of youth, wellness, surfing, avocado toast and party drugs. There's Bondi Blonde beer, Bondi Wash, Bondi Sands skin care products, Bondi Rescue on TV, even the Bondi Boost blowout brush. Did you know "Bondi Blue" was the name for the colour of the first iMac in 1998?

"Byron" has been shorthand for alternate lifestyle for decades, but in recent years it has been elevated to coolness by a stampede of A, B and C-list celebrities (the Hemsworth Effect) and wealthy sea changers from the cities, escalating property prices, creating traffic gridlock and a fraught tension between original residents and the latest blow-ins, between rich, alternative and poor.

The median price of a house is now $2.7 million compared to Sydney's $1.2 million. Laid-back beachy glamour comes at a premium.

On the surface you can see why it's so desirable. Byron is a beautiful town. Although erosion has damaged Main Beach, the headland and hinterland remain heart-stoppingly gorgeous. It's close to major cities Brisbane and Sydney and for those who work from a laptop it seems like paradise.

But Byron is not all kale and crystals and beach yoga. In fact, a lot of it isn't this at all. There's a fake "Byron" and a real one, like most brands. Which is why the locals took such exception to the concept of a reality-soap about Byron influencers in the first place. They didn't feel the image was true to the town. Surfers had a "paddle out" in protest.

The last time I was in Byron, it was clear it has become a victim of its own success. The traffic jams were worse than any I'd struck in Sydney. In fact, it seems that rather leaving the big smoke for a more relaxed life, new arrivals brought the city with them.

I stayed with a friend who lives in a condominium near the beach. Most nights, there's the sound of fights and intermittent loud music from the encampments of homeless and wanderers who pitch tents among the tea trees in the dunes. Despite the wealth everywhere, many people have nowhere to sleep.

With rising rents, now exacerbated by the recent floods in the area, homelessness is the overwhelming social issue of Byron Bay. Byron shire has the highest rate of it in NSW, with the loss of long-term housing to Airbnb and other short-stay platforms another major factor.

But the Byron Baes live in gorgeous houses with swimming pools and interior magazine décor. They hold Robot Mermaid events to save the planet. That's on brand. But it's not a place.

lee.tulloch@traveller.com.au

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