Amazing beaches? Check
Rich local history? Check
Beautiful harbour? Check
Nearby winery region? Check
Beautiful lake district? Check
Tourists? Strangely absent
I haven’t been able to do much traveling of late, which has been a welcome change after several weeks of being busier on the weekends than I am during the week. And, aside from a few excursions here in Sydney, there’s not much in the way of exciting travel on the horizon until we fly out to New Zealand on December 17th.
But in my browsing of the Lonely Planet website I noticed that a former stomping ground of mine has recently been included on their Top 10 Cities of 2011 count-down.
Anybody who has had the pleasure of living in or visiting Newcastle is well aware of its charms. It’s got a harbour district that, while not quite as awe inspiring as Sydney Harbour, is nothing to be sneezed at. There are a swathe of beaches that put Bondi to shame; the nearby Hunter Valley wine region; nearby coastal towns that offer distinct charms; plenty of hiking opportunities in reserves such as Blackbutt; a rich history as Australia’s second oldest city; and a developing local food and arts industry.
Why then, do more people not include Newcastle on their itineraries when it comes to paying a visit to Australia?
Most tours of Australia hit the big spots such as Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth, and they also tend to include must see backpacker destinations such as Alice Springs, Darwin, and places like Cairns and the Gold Coast for obvious reasons.
But despite all of its immense potential, it’s not common to meet a traveler who has been to or intends to go to Newcastle.
The reason is simple. Despite all of its immense natural and cultural wealth – the area just doesn’t make the required effort to bring in tourists and, sadly, the baby boomer majority in the area seem to be happy to still be Australia’s best kept secret after fifty years of it.
It’s a terrible shame, because the city so desperately needs a new source of income. For so long the region lived and died by the coal mining industry, and while it still plays a significant part in the region’s industry, the operation has scaled back significantly over the years. The city boasts one of the highest unemployment rates in Australia and it’s mostly because there is absolutely nothing for skilled professionals to do if they don’t want to become a boiler maker or laborer. For all of the fancy development on Honeysuckle and the new malls being built in Charlestown and Kotara – the simple fact remains that people don’t go to Newcastle to holiday unless they’ve got family in the area.
In my time living in Newcastle, I co-founded the Knights Crusade – who are the Newcastle Knights’ unofficial supporter’s group and continues to grow long after my involvement ceased. What does that have to do with travel in Newcastle? Well, the plight of the team is something we all had to endure over the years, and it seems a big part of the club’s issues with luring players to the area is that nobody wants to live in Newcastle. For young football players with plenty of disposable income and free time, there’s just not a lot to do on the weekends. The city boasts one of the weakest night scenes I’ve had the dubious pleasure of participating in, and I’m including my years living and studying in the town of Armidale in northern NSW. The fact a university town of some 25,000 boasts a comparable night life is a pretty sad indictment of Newcastle’s pub and club scene.
To a lot of travelers, the city’s night life doesn’t make a lick of difference – but in a country that draws more and more backpackers every year, it’s a crying shame that Newcastle is barely a blip on the radar. Pay a visit to Cairns and you’ll find a city that makes a healthy living off of cashed up Europeans and North Americans on a break from study. Newcastle might not have the draw card of the Great Barrier Reef, but it does have a pretty solid foundation to work from.
Anybody who has been walked the Bather’s Way or spent a day out on beautiful Lake Macquarie knows that there is a lot to love about the area, but why don’t tourists know that? Why aren’t tanned and scantily clad Swedish girls making Newcastle a priority stop so they can lay out on Nobby’s Beach or swim the crystal green waters of One Mile Beach? With so many people making a beeline to the Barossa Valley region to sample Australia’s wine-making culture, why don’t more include the Hunter’s own slice of paradise? Why can’t Newcastle, Australia’s seventh biggest city, have a thriving shopping scene to give NSW travelers an alternative to Sydney?
What can be done about it? I’m not the one to say. But having lived there for a decent portion of my life and seen first hand how much potential the city is failing to capitalize on, I’d love to see something done. You’ve got all of the building blocks in the city to be the city to visit in Australia, but nothing seems to be being done.
Newcastle is a city suffering from small town syndrome and it’s baby boomer population isn’t going to be around forever to put money into the region.
Businesses need to be lured to the area to attract the youth, a night life district needs to be established because nobody wants to have to take 15-20 minute cab rides between the city’s few happening spots, the city’s crumbling downtown area needs to be made into a glitzy tourist friendly district rather than a collection of crumbling buildings, out of place storefronts, and unsightly rail land. It’s a case of ‘If you build it, they will come’.
As it stands, I fear anybody following Lonely Planet’s advice and swinging off the Pacific Highway is going to be sorely disappointed.