Bananas to Beautizone
Coffs’ Changing Summers
It used to be that summer was a time of hard, physical work for many residents of the Coffs Coast. Tropical fruit was a mainstay of the local economy and it ripened in the summer months. Growers, workers and carriers laboured in the heat to get crops picked, packed and transported by rail and road to capital city markets. In the 1950s however, tourism began to gain momentum and the region was instead promoted as a destination for leisure and relaxation: the Pacific Beautizone. This catchy title was chosen as the winner from over 1400 entries in a 1956 competition to name the area from the Clarence to the Nambucca.
The changes that took place in our summers in the post-World War Two period paved the way for the transformation of the Coffs Coast region, which continues today.
Bananas to Blueberries
Hermann Rieck pioneered the growing of bananas in the Coffs Harbour region in the 1880s, however, the first commercially-successful banana farm was at Korora, established around 1911 and grew to about 20 acres by 1918. Despite being a tropical fruit, it was found that bananas could be grown successfully on the steep north-facing slopes around Coffs Harbour which were frost-free and exposed to strong sun. At this stage the industry was profitable but remained small and local.
Following World War One, a number of solder settlements were established in the Korora area and returned servicemen were shown how to grow bananas by local farmers. Bananas were doing well in the Richmond-Tweed area and south-east Queensland, but a 1922 outbreak of bunchy-top, a disease carried by the banana aphid, destroyed many of these plantations, while Coffs Harbour’s remained disease-free. This gave an enormous boost to the local crop, lifting the price and demand for Coffs Harbour’s bananas. By 1931 there were 1815 acres of bananas under cultivation and in 1932 the Banana Growers Federation (BGF) Co-op was formed.
After World War Two, banana-growing became Coffs Harbour’s dominant agricultural crop. The hills surrounding Coffs Harbour were covered with bananas, creating the popular and enduring image of the region. By July 1947 there was a record 3656 acres under production, with around 500 growers. Bananas were transported to city markets by train and truck. In the last week of January 1948, a record consignment of 14,870 cases of bananas was sent to Sydney by train. The banana industry also became associated with the local Sikh community who started arriving here in the late 1940s and became major growers of bananas.
Today, bananas do not figure so strongly in Coffs Harbour’s economy. Tourism has taken over as the primary economic force, and the growth of the Queensland banana industry and long-haul refrigerated transport have reduced Coffs Harbour’s importance as a banana growing area. Blueberries are now the dominant crop in the region and the hills once dense with bananas are clothed in protective nets.
From the late 19th century, people started coming to the Coffs Coast for holidays. Most camped or picnicked at Park Beach, Sawtell, Moonee and Woolgoolga. The experience was low key and basic, with visitors drawn to the area’s natural attractions. The first visitors were local: families coming down from Grafton, the Clarence, Dorrigo and Bellingen to escape hot, sticky inland summers and enjoy annual seaside camping holidays. After the opening of the North Coast Railway in 1924, visitors came in greater numbers from Sydney, Newcastle and beyond.
The need to set aside coastal reserves for recreation was recognised early. The 102-acre reserve at Sawtell was formally gazetted in 1902. In 1912, it was reported that over 300 people stayed there during the holiday period, by 1920 this had increased to 1000 and the reserve had its own store, post office and caretaker. 48 acres at Coffs Creek and Park Beach was dedicated as a Recreation Reserve in 1916.
As permanent accommodation and holiday industries emerged around the annual influx of visitors, the character of the area began to change. Guest houses were built and townships like Sawtell grew to service the lucrative holiday trade. As conditions on the Pacific Highway improved, including the substitution of bridges for ferry-crossings, car-orientated accommodation such as motels, holiday cabins and caravan parks were established. The first motel – an abbreviation of “motorist’s hotel” – made a splash when it opened in 1958 on the north-west corner of the Highway and Bray Street. Around the same time, holiday flats began to be built.
After the Second World War, the local business community recognised the potential of tourism as a major industry for the region. The late 1950s and early 60s were a boom period. A Mid North Coast Tourist Authority formed in 1956 and the area was christened the “Pacific Beautizone”.
The “horticultural mammoth”
In the 1960s, the promotion of the Pacific Beautizone faced some unexpected competition. American scientist John Landi bought a banana plantation and set up a stall on the highway at Korora in 1963. Seeing an opportunity for innovative promotion, he approached the Banana Growers Federation to pay half the cost of constructing a larger-than-life banana next to his stall. The idea was that the Big Banana would be seen by travellers on one of the busiest highways in regional Australia, encourage people to eat (and buy!) more bananas, while at the same time portraying Coffs Harbour as a distinctive place associated with tropical fruit.
Not all locals liked the idea. To some, unlike the town’s natural setting and its picturesque jetty, a giant artificial banana was not a thing of beauty. It was something that “might be seen in Hawaii or Queensland” they complained. Despite their protests, the project opened in time for Christmas 1964 and was an immediate success. In its first week of operation there were 2000 visitors each day. The Coffs Harbour Advocate reported that the “horticultural mammoth … held the spotlight”. The Mid-North Coast Tourist Authority had in fact shut down a few months earlier. The concept of the Beautizone went with it.Curated ByJo Besley