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Southern Cross academic drives youth activism project in iconic Byron Bay


Media and Content team
22 November 2021
Woman leans against a colourful wall

She’s the social anthropologist using her academic prowess to bring real change to the lives of the youth of Byron.

Southern Cross University’s Dr Antonia Canosa has spent the better part of a decade immersed in the Byron lifestyle with her young family. The iconic town is a magnet for tourists from Australia and around the globe who visit in large numbers every year.

Antonia’s latest research involves looking at tourism through the eyes of young people who live in a destination town – in this case the Byron Shire – and how it shapes their perceptions about life, self, their community, the environment, and even their aspirations.

Her research has not only been published in high-ranking journals, but has inspired a youth-led theatre production in the Byron Shire, and most unexpectedly, a grass-roots movement led by a team of young people and other key stakeholders who have established the ‘Byron Way Pledge’.

Unlike so many other researchers who focus on the impacts of tourism from a predominantly adult perspective, Antonia’s work is globally unique in bringing the voices of children and young people to the fore about an issue which directly impacts their daily lives.

“Often in the business and tourism space researchers aren’t committed to listening to the perspectives of children. But through the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University, and under the guidance of globally-renown Professor Anne Graham, I was able to navigate those ethical complexities and design a study that highlighted the voices of youth on these big issues,” said Dr Canosa – who shared the experience of growing up in the popular tourist destination of Positano in Italy.

“Our co-researchers were a group of young actors from the Byron Youth Theatre who we’ve been actively working with for the past 18 months, with colleagues Dr Catharine Simmons and Dr Peter Cook.

“We trained them in research methods, ethics, and all the requirements so they could conduct university research. Then they conducted recorded interviews with other young people from their networks regarding issues within their community.

“We transcribed and collated the data and together with the youth we workshopped those ideas, putting different phrases and ideas under different themes to show them how the qualitative analysis is done.

“The findings show young people are very aware of the impacts of tourism including issues with littering, the environment, affordable housing, lack of respect for local Aboriginal sacred sites. Many interviewees said they felt some relief during COVID restrictions, when they could experience their own town without overcrowding, but they also saw the negative impacts on business.

“The student researchers felt visitors needed to take ownership for some of these broader tourism issues and that’s how the Byron Way Pledge was born.”

The Byron Way Pledge is an innovative youth-driven initiative where tourists to the area and tourism operators pledge sustainability to local youth, to help offset or minimise some of the impacts of tourism on the town. The pledge includes a set of responsible tourism principles such as respecting Indigenous culture and sacred sites, being socially and environmentally responsible and carbon neutral, following signs, and ‘embracing the Byron way’ with kindness and cheer.

“The Byron Way Pledge unexpectedly evolved. It’s a real grass-roots initiative co-created with young people in the community and other key stakeholders, including local eco-tourism company Vision Walks, Delta Kay and Byron Youth Theatre  ” Dr Canosa said.

“The group is in talks with major accommodation providers, the idea being they direct their visitors to understand and sign the pledge before staying in the area.”

Dr Canosa said the Byron Youth Theatre research participants are now transforming their experience of these issues into a production under the direction of Lisa Apostolides, set to be staged in December. The production will be used to launch the official Byron Way Pledge website.

“We hope the pledge will be spread widely and spark interest in other communities that are also tourist destinations,” Dr Canosa said.

“Iceland for instance has a responsible tourism pledge in place for the whole country, as does New Zealand, and Palau even stamps passports with the pledge for visitors to sign.

“Imagine if this initiative that started in Byron was implemented in other destinations in Australia. It’s really cool it started with the young people.”

Listen to Antonia talk about her research in-depth on the SCU Buzz podcast:

Southern Cross University · Amplifying youth activism in Byron Bay: a chat with Dr Antonia Canosa