Off the coast of Perth is Rottnest Island, home to the world’s largest population of quokkas. // © 2015 Tourism Western Australia
Feature image (above): The Elizabeth Quay urban renewal project will create a new social hub complete with luxury hotels along the Swan River. // © 2015 Tourism Western Australia
Gold transformed the city of Perth when the resource was discovered in Western Australia (WA) in the 1890s. With the gold rush came prosperity, new architecture and a meteoric rise in the local population.
And now, the WA state capital is in the midst of another transformational boom. In fact, Perth is Australia’s fastest-growing capital city, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Between 2013 and 2014, the population of Greater Perth increased by 2.5 percent, reaching a total of 2.02 million people. The Committee for Perth predicts that this number could grow as high as 5.4 million by 2050.
Once again, the current population spike has its roots in mining, mainly for iron ore, as well as in petroleum. The demand for WA’s natural resources has created many jobs — plus plenty of wealth to distribute in Perth and its surroundings. These golden times are affecting hospitality, nightlife and cultural offerings, making the sunny, laid-back city an even more attractive place to live in and visit.
Gareth Twomey, a guide for Perth-based tour operator Two Feet & a Heartbeat, tells me this as we walk through the city’s central business district (CBD). We pass a skyscraper called Brookfield Place, which serves the mining, metals and petroleum company BHP Billiton Ltd. It is surrounded by old buildings that had been vacant for about 20 years, but now house the likes of luxe retailers such as Montblanc. He leads me through a dark alley behind the building where we find a hungry foodie’s utopia of more than 20 swanky eateries and bars.
“There was nothing here a few years ago,” Twomey said.
This is becoming a favorite refrain of his during our evening walk along St. Georges Terrace, the city’s main street.
“It’s a complete revival,” Twomey said. “On one of my tours, I had an eldery couple from North Perth, which is about five minutes away from here. They had no reason to come into the city because they didn’t think there were changes. Their son bought them a voucher to take this tour, and they walked around with their jaws on the floor.”
Though we’re many hours away from the other Golden State, the story of the Perth CBD — especially how it’s attracting more young professionals to live in the city with a range of hip dining and nightlife options, beautified public spaces, better public transportation and cool, reclaimed historic spaces — reminds me of the recent revival of downtown Los Angeles.
The renewed CBD is just a single aspect of what is considered one of the biggest transformations in Perth’s history. The city is pouring billions of dollars into its further growth — and part of the aim is to attract tourists, including those from the U.S., who make up WA’s fifth biggest market in terms of visitors and sixth in terms of spending.
So far, 57,400 Americans visited WA, a 12.8 percent increase over 2014, according to Stephanie Buckland, CEO of Tourism Western Australia (Tourism WA).
“Due to the great response from the American market, the U.S. has moved to priority market status for us,” said Sandra Nerlich, regional director of North America for Tourism WA.
And tour operators are also seeing demand. Last year, Down Under Answers’ business to Perth increased by 45 percent, and the company expects to see a growth of at least 20 percent by the end of this year.
Down Under president Kirk Demeter credits a growing interest in the destination, as well as better value in terms of air travel to and from Perth, for the spike in bookings to the city.
“Thanks to the efforts of the tourism boards and Luxury Lodges of Australia, awareness about WA and Perth has been percolating steadily for the last three years especially,” said Rachel Haile, owner of Chicago-based The Trip Studio. “I’ve personally visited and seen more marketing efforts from Perth, the far northwest Kimberley region and Ningaloo Reef.”
With more concentrated outreach to the U.S., many consumers are learning about Perth and WA’s wonders for the first time. Perth is the gateway to state’s farther-reaching, bucket-list-worthy experiences, from swimming with whale sharks in the country’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Coast, to flying over Horizontal Falls and other natural phenomena in the Kimberley region.
But don’t assume Perth is just a ho-hum layover en route to what Haile calls “the last frontier.” Perth has many established assets, including 3,200 sunny hours per year; Kings Park, one of the world’s biggest inner-city parks; and plenty of waterside views via the Swan River or one of Perth’s 19 beaches.
Outside the immediate city there are numerous destinations, especially the historic port city of Fremantle, known for its markets, hippie vibes, microbreweries — including Little Creatures, considered one of the best breweries in Australia — independent shops, Fremantle Prison (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Cappuccino Strip, a rich concentration of coffee shops.
From Fremantle, there’s a short ferry available to Rottnest Island, a favorite destination in its own right. “Rotto,” as it’s called by locals, is the world’s best place to see quokkas, adorable cat-size marsupials; ride a bike; and snorkel and dive in several gorgeous bays. Food and wine lovers can also make a quick trip to Swan Valley or make the three-hour drive to the Margaret River region, the Napa Valley of WA.
But tourists visiting now have the bonus of unearthing all that’s new and hidden beneath Perth’s changing skyline.
“Perth is an evolving city, staying on the cutting edge of great tourism opportunities,” Demeter said. “It is the type of city that gets better with each visit, because there is always something new and exciting to see. Plus, now the mining has slowed a bit, and there are great values to be had.”
The distance to Perth and the rest of WA from the U.S. still makes the region a high-end destination and a great choice for well-heeled clients seeking a spot that is remote and rugged, as well as buzzing and cosmopolitan.
Demeter suggests that agents look at the region as a way of bringing some real bragging rights to their Australia-bound clients, while Tourism WA markets the destination as ideal for “Aspirational Achievers” and “Dedicated Discoverers,” reflecting a client’s need for exploration and willingness to spend money on a vacation.
Haile proposes WA to clients who have three-plus weeks to visit Australia or those who’ve been to Australia before and crave something different. She also recommends it for first-timers who have a keen interest in WA and want to go there exclusively, or for those who love off-the-beaten-path places and couldn’t care less about famous names such as Melbourne, Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef.
New Infrastructure, More Fun
Some of the new developments contributing to Perth’s growing buzz are the 60,000-seat Perth Stadium, a $821 million investment scheduled for 2018; the WA Museum, a $428 million investment slated for 2020; and countless new restaurants and bars.
Even more significant is Elizabeth Quay, a $2 billion investment that aims to bring social life to the Swan River, the gorgeous but underutilized waterway that runs through the city. New features include a children’s waterpark; commercial, office and retail spaces; homes; and 400 new hotel rooms, including the 204-room Ritz-Carlton Hotel (slated for 2018).
About 2,000 hotels rooms are planned to open between now and 2018.
More hotel openings include the 250-room, 4½-star Avani Hotel; the 500-room, six-star Crown Towers hotel, scheduled to open in 2016; the 362-room Westin Hotel, slated for 2017; and the 48-room Como – The Treasury, set to open this year in a reclaimed historical building.
“These hotels offer a mix of accommodation types and will allow us to diversify the demand for Perth,” Tourism WA’s Buckland said. “We will be able to attract corporate and leisure visitors, run major conferences and events, attract new airlines into the state and disperse travelers to regional WA.”
Making Perth more accessible is Perth City Link, arguably the most impressive of Perth’s urban renewal projects. The $5.3 billion investment will connect the CBD to the Northbridge entertainment district by sinking a railway line that had separated Perth’s northern communities from downtown for the last 100 years. New buildings, walkways and a social square (Yagan Square) are in various stages of development through 2020.
Already, many new businesses have opened up in this area, including the futuristic-looking Perth Arena and the 74-room, independently run Alex Hotel.
“For us, this was the ideal location,” said Miles Hull, co-owner of Alex Hotel. “The CBD is only a couple minutes’ walk, Perth Cultural Centre is here, and Northbridge is going through a renaissance. It used to be debaucherous, but there are lots of new things popping up, including independent retailers, restaurants, bars and retail shops, and many are owner-operated. Like Fremantle, it’s a little more creative and the most diverse in terms of people on the street.”
Though it won’t be hosting DJs any time soon, Alex is reminiscent of an Ace Hotel in its love of design and innovation, and it especially succeeds in its goal to make guests feel like they’re at home. Rooms are purposefully small and without desks or minibars in order to encourage guests to socialize with one another somewhere in its two-story, meticulously designed common space, which features complimentary locally-sourced breakfast, homemade muffins and an honor bar. Since Alex sets the tone, it’s amazingly easy for a loner’s mission to sneak away with a Little Creatures Pale Ale to morph into a 45-minute conversation with a fellow guest — yes, this happened to me a few times.
Alex is not alone in activating unused social spaces, though. It’s been a goal of the city following the state government’s liquor licensing reform in 2007, which allowed for the creation of small bars. There are more than 100 such establishments in Perth, and The Small Bar Association of W.A. Inc. (SBA) believes the venues have helped make Perth appealing to tourists. Most of the bars are helmed by passionate owners who are interested in bringing something niche to Perth.
“Before the small bars, the city had a much smaller number of quite large pubs and clubs,” said Tim Brown, president of SBA. “This increased choice has added considerable vibrancy.”
The Perth government also launched the “Forgotten Spaces – Revitalising Perth’s Laneways” campaign in 2008. Taking a cue from Melbourne’s popular laneway commercial areas, Perth commissioned Stormie Mills, one of the city’s favorite street artists, to create a piece for Howard Lane, the first alley to transform into a nightlife destination. Not too far away, Wolf Lane feels like a cultural enclave, with colorful, large-scale murals enclosing its small businesses like palm trees forming a canopy over the sand.
While there’s more to the city than the quirky social spaces that led one New York Times reviewer to rave that Perth was more hipster than Williamsburg, Brooklyn, these new social hubs are one of a kind. In Northbridge, there’s Lucky Chan’s Laundry + Noodlebar, Perth’s first crowdsourced spot, complete with funky laundromat decor and a mythical backstory about an international man of mystery. Farther afield, in an unmarked laneway paved in street art, there’s Toastface Grillah, a grilled-cheese spot given away only by the arresting aroma of fried cheese.
The vibe at these places tends to be exciting, as I found over dinner at Lot 20, another new owner-operated small bar across the street from Alex Hotel.
My mates were hand-selected to dine with one another via a secretive Facebook group called Stranger Danger. Over top-notch cocktails, I shared how I had just returned from swimming with whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef, while another dining partner wowed the group with his coffee shop’s bacon maple lattes — the best of both worlds all in one state.
For the right kind of client, that’s a bit like striking gold.