The Hemsworth effect, how Byron became a tourism superhero

Chris Hemsworth. The man can’t put a foot wrong. He’s a powerhouse ambassador for Tourism Australia, with his Instagram posts acting as entire tourism campaigns in their own right.

And where does this Marvel icon choose to call home? A man who could live anywhere in the world, has chosen to hang up his Thor hammer in a small coastal town in northern New South Wales. Byron Bay.

For a town with a population of 9000, Byron packs a powerful tourism punch attracting two million visitors a year.

So what are they coming for? Probably the same reason many of the locals who came from interstate. Because Byron is a destination that “just feels right”.

Georgina Inwood first came to Byron for Bluesfest. After many years in politics she made a career u-turn and returned to Byron to set up Table Under a Tree, a boutique culinary experience including farm and food tours and cooking masterclasses.

“This place just always felt right. It’s a perfect combination of climate and culture and there’s something about the locals who add an extra layer of the intangible that always made me love it,” she says.

“I grew up on a farm so in a way I’ve just come full circle and reconnected with the land. I knew this region as a real food bowl – farmer’s markets galore with phenomenal quality and depth – so it meant working out how to add something to that and give a new experience.”

Taking groups to meet to the small-scale producers and farmers and then bringing them together through shared food experiences is a great way to foster connections with both the locals and within the group itself.

“As I got to know more and more of the small-scale farmers and producers, I pretty quickly worked out that they’re what makes the place,” she says. “They’re fantastic. They’re quirky characters who all have a story to tell and I love being able to tell that story for them.

“There is definitely a strong emphasis on food provenance and on letting ingredients shine for what they are which I just love. Actually the food scene here is so vibrant that the challenge can be knowing where to go. I jokingly tell people that to really get to know Byron, you’re going to have to leave the beach or the festival site! That goes doubly so for the food scene. You’ll really be rewarded with some amazing food finds by getting into the hinterland or going to some of the little villages and small towns around the region. I say it all the time – real people, making real food at real places.”

Cape Byron Distillery is another example of outsiders coming to Byron and falling in love with the place. In this case it was the Brook family who upped sticks and bought a desolate piece of red earth in the Byron hinterland sight unseen.

The was back in the 80s, and since then the land has been brought back to life, becoming first a macadamia farm, and now under the eye of their son Eddie, one of Australia’s finest gin distilleries.

Cape Byron Distillery carries with it the philosophy of custodians of the land. Everything about the land and its plants and landscape infuse the work that goes into producing Brookie’s Gin.

“In the native language of the Arakwal people of the Bundjalung nation Byron Bay is known as Cavanbah, which translates to ‘meeting place’,” says Sigourney Andrusko botanical advisor and mixologist at Cape Byron Distillery.

“It is said that Byron is a place where people come to meet, to heal and then to continue on your journey.”

 

With the family’s desire to bring the land back into its native sub-tropical state has also brought back native ingredients such as Davidson plums and aniseed myrtle – all of which make their way into the range of gins.

“The land has been a leading inspiration for how we uniquely distil,” says Andrusko. “Our signature Brookie’s Byron Dry gin has encapsulated as many local rainforest flavours as possible to create a gin that is a regional expression.

“Of our 25 botanicals, 17 are indigenous to the Northern Rivers and allow us to share flavours that you cannot find anywhere else in the world.”

Beyond the gin, the passion of everyone at Cape Byron Distillery is just as infectious.

“People come to us with the passion already there but standing on the balcony looking over the rainforest that the Brook’s have worked so hard for or walking through the forest with the man who planted it, Martin Brook, it is almost impossible not to catch what he calls ‘the rainforest disease’,” says Andrusko.

“We all love creating delicious products that we can share with our friends and family and the fact that it helping to support our local rainforest makes it even easier to be passionate about.”

The distillery does tastings and a guided tours through their rainforest, gin and tonic in hand.

Another family business in the hinterland is Harvest Newrybar, with co-owners Tristan and Kassia Grier and Brooke Hudson developing Harvest into an events and hospitality venue come community space.

Self-service checkout at Harvest Newrybar puts a new spin on fresh produce.

Tristan is a self-described “hospitality tragic” who simply wanted to work in the most beautiful towns in the world. Except in the case of Byron, he never left. Now he also considers himself a custodian of the land.

“In the most basic sense, to me, it means leaving it the land, the people, the business and  the community better than when you found it, a custodianship is to carry, to nurture too become one and find harmony,” he says.

But it also means honouring the history of the space itself.

“Starting with our indigenous Newrybar history and blending this with our European movement,” he says. “Our beautiful history can be felt in every room, 120 years of service, stories and human interactions that you feel as you move through the space. We are proud of our history and we are excited by our future.”

Sustainability is also more than just a buzzword here, it underpins everything they do at Harvest Newrybar.

“We live in a bubble in Byron, and with this bubble comes great responsibility to make actual change as we map towards regenerative practices,” he says. “There are so many active exceptional business groups pooling resources. Byron has a chance to lead the world, actually we have the best chance to lead the world.”

That sustainability ethos carries through to Byron on Byron, which has just joined the Crystalbrook Collection family.

“Since the acquisition and over the coming weeks, the Group is focused on incorporating their environmental initiatives into the resort,” says Katie Malone, group director of marketing at Crystalbrook Collection.

“This includes removing all plastic water bottles, which are to be replaced with biodegradable cardboard containers and introducing pump pack bathroom amenity bottles, wooden keys and in-room iPads to replace printed materials.

“Crystalbrook believes that the little things make a big difference. By thinking and operating in a responsible and modern way that exceeds the demands of the environment and guests is part of the day-to-day.”

Given the resort is surrounded by a private 45-acre rainforest setting only minutes from the town centre, wellness options are also a major feature.

“We offer and encourage our clients to incorporate mindfulness and wellness activities into their conferences, events and meetings,” says Malone.

“We offer add-ons for all of our corporates and events including our unique Five Senses Forest Bathing experience, private yoga practices in addition to the daily free yoga classes at the resort each morning. We also work with a variety of suppliers who focus on mindfulness.”

Byron may be small but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t think big, regularly holding some of Australia’s largest festivals and events. One property that capitalises on that is Elements of Byron, which is the largest conference and events facility in the northern rivers.

The property has the space to hold up 400 people theatre style and then transform into a space for a dinner for up to 240. But it is the outdoor space that allows it to really think big, allowing them to custom build events for up to 500 people.

“We have the Byron Bay Writers Festival, where we have a DA to use a festival licence which allows us to use the outdoor space for up 3000 per day per event, so we have some rather unusual flexibility in our space both externally and internally which allows us to expand normal events,” says Joan Loewensohn, conference and events manager at Elements of Byron.

Barefoot luxury at Elements of Byron.

“Our concept being barefoot luxury. The beach, the ocean and the hinterland create a very peaceful environment.”

But again, it’s the people that really bring it all together in Byron.

“We work closely with the local stakeholders to include them in the success of Elements from our external structures, to our styling, our AV to the array of entertainment and activities that are available,” says Loewensohn.

It’s the people that make Byron so special, from laughter guru Meredith Yardley who wants to raise everyone’s level of happiness one belly laugh at a time to Alex and Brita, whose fleet of perfectly restored Kombis are the perfect way to get around town. And Chris Hemsworth of course. Apparently, he’s even nicer in person according the locals. Of course he is, it couldn’t be any other way in Byron.