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Australia's 'clean, green' Tasmania confronts downside of boom

Rising star destination encounters warnings about over-tourism

Some expressed concerns congestion is hurting Tamania's quiet environment.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

SYDNEY -- Australia's island state of Tasmania is renowned for its clean, green image, world-class whiskey, food and wine, rugged wilderness, alpine areas and World Heritage-listed historical sites. But on the Australian mainland, Tasmania has long been the butt of jokes -- an economic backwater full of "greenies," as environmental activists are locally known.

The stereotype rang true in June when Ron Christie, mayor of Hobart, the state capital, embarked on a public tirade against a tourism boom that has helped to deliver 13 successive quarters of economic growth in Tasmania, bringing in revenues of 2.37 billion Australian dollars ($1.74 billion) in the year ended March 2018, according to official state figures.

"Let's put a perspective on this -- less than 12 years ago we were a quiet little backwater's smallest capital in Australia -- 'Slowbart,'" Christie said of the quaint sandstone city set in a stunning waterfront location in the south of the island. "The rate we are growing, particularly in the past 12 months to two years, the traffic congestion ... it eats quickly into our idyllic and healthy lifestyle. If we continue to move at this rate the heart of our city and community will be destroyed. It's time to put the brakes on and evaluate."

Christie did not stop there. He also chastised Dark Mofo, a popular annual music, arts and culture festival that attracts 20,000 tourists to Hobart in the peak of the southern hemisphere winter, calling it "weird" and its art "dubious."

Christie's comments were condemned by a wide spectrum of Tasmanians. "I don't think his views represent how most Tasmanians would feel," said Kym Goodes, CEO of TasCOSS, the peak body for the social-welfare sector in the island state.

Gerard Webb, a Hobart artist, said the mayor's vision for the state was out of date. "Ron Christie's views represent the pre-MONA era. But this is the post-MONA era and the reality is Hobart is booming like never before," he said in a reference to the Museum of Old and New Art, built by an eccentric Tasmanian millionaire in 2011.

The MOFO event has brought money and possibly too many people to Tasmania. (Courtesy of MONA)

Chiseled into an escarpment on the banks of the Derwent River in the northern suburbs of Hobart, MONA houses one of the most controversial collections of art in the world, attracting up to 2,500 visitors per day. The museum regularly tops international lists of the world's best museums, and is the organizer of Dark Mofo.

Christie's comments were never going to win him friends among artists or the one in six Tasmanians who work directly or indirectly in tourism. But they may resonate with the state's 1,600 homeless people, whose plight is blamed in part on a housing crisis caused by soaring demand for accommodation from tourists.

More than 1.28 million visitors have arrived in the past 12 months -- more than double the state's population, and nearly half a million more than the total in 2008. Coupled with the rise of Airbnb, which now lists more than 1,100 Hobart properties, the tourism boom has pushed up rents by 12.5% since July 2017, according to local real estate analyst Domain Rental Report.

"The kind of people who are now homeless in Hobart are not what you'd expect," said Scott Gadd, manager of the Hobart Showgrounds, an open space where a score of Tasmanians are living in caravans and tents. "Over the summer it went ballistic. We had 16 families turn up, couples, single mums, large families who had nowhere to go. We still have five people living in tents now, in the middle of winter. It's far from an optimal solution."

Therese Taylor, who for 10 years was CEO of Colony 47, a nongovernmental organization that helps the homeless in Tasmania, said the tourism boom has proved to be a double-edged sword.

"It's so exciting to be here in Tasmania, the place really does feel alive now," she said of the city now known as Australia's capital of edginess, festivals and art. "But it brought this perfect storm where an undersupply of public housing and ... mainland investors snapping up houses to put them on Airbnb changed the housing supply chain significantly. Lots of people got left behind.

"To go forward we have to bring everything with us and I do feel some of those businesses doing very well out of tourism need to take more corporate responsibility," Taylor said.

Taylor added that the Dark Mofo tourists that converged for two weeks in June took up even emergency accommodation for the homeless.

The Museum of Old and New Art houses art collections from around the world and attracts up to 2,500 visitors per day. (Courtesy of MONA)

MONA co-CEO Mark Wilsdon acknowledged that Hobart has a housing crisis and bad traffic, but blamed the problems on a lack of strategic planning and investment.

"I think the government in general over the last 10 years has had its hands off the wheel, and as a result the city is now struggling to catch up with infrastructure. It's no different in Sydney and other Australian cities," he said. "Hobart's traffic problem has very little to do with tourism. It's because we have an old city and two main thoroughfares that account for most of the traffic that passes through the CBD [central business district]."

Wilsdon, who is also director of the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania, said the solution is to disperse more tourists outside of Hobart and encourage them to visit the pristine beaches and islets of the east coast, the alpine plateaus and luxury lodges of Cradle Mountain, and the World Heritage-listed national parks of Tasmania's wild and windswept west.

"We've taken a lead on that," Wilsdon said. "This summer, we're moving Mona Foma, Dark Mona's sister summer festival, to Launceston [Tasmania's second largest city] in the north. It will be great for Launceston and a net benefit to some of the supply pressure we are feeling in Hobart."

Tasmania's conservative Liberal government has committed A$5 million in funding for Mona Foma over the next three years. But it does not expect the festival's relocation to take much of the pressure off Hobart as visitor numbers are expected to leapfrog to 1.5 million by 2020, according to projections by Tourism Tasmania. Visitors currently spend an average of one in three nights in Hobart and the ratio will not change anytime soon, according to projections by Tasmania Tourism.

However, the government has encouraged a construction boom, with more than 1,000 new hotel rooms expected to become available within the next five years, including two new controversial towers by Singaporean group Fragrance that are set to change the city's skyline. Investment in roads and infrastructure will spike by A$70 million (20%) over the next four years, while an additional A$70 million has been earmarked for 1,500 newly built affordable homes -- assuming that Premier Will Hodgman's Liberal state government is returned in elections due in March 2019.

"We are the only state in the country that is net debt free," Hodgman said at a Hobart business event in June. "So for those mainlanders who may have once talked of Tasmania as a backwater, or even worse, as 'a mendicant state,' don't even think about it."

Cassy O'Connor, a former state housing minister who sits in the Tasmanian state parliament for the opposition Greens Party, said the state government must do more, including imposing a freeze on Airbnb listings of entire homes.

"For too many Tasmanians, this sharp increase in visitor numbers and the housing boom have caused a financial crisis and social dislocation," she said. "The state government says it has more money than ever. They're just not putting it where it needs to go. We will be maintaining the pressure for a reset of government priorities."

Hodgman's government was recently ranked Australia's most popular state government in a Sensis Business Survey, suggesting that a shakeup in its tourism policy is unlikely. But Hodgman will no doubt take note of the message behind Christie's tirade.

"We want a livable city. We want a city that connects with us so the whole community can benefit. It's not all about wealth. It's about people," added Hodgman.

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