A few weeks ago the New York Times published a travel article called “Catching Perth’s Wave in Western Australia,” a gushing puff piece you could be forgiven for thinking was financed by Tourism WA. Amongst the article’s more amusing claims were that Perth is “eco-fabulous” (it is the least sustainable city in Australia), that it has “spotless subways and free public buses” (Perth’s terrible rail network is entirely above ground, and the buses are only free in the CBD) and that sometimes it seems “as if everyone in Perth was under the age of 30” (I would argue that it seems as if the city is controlled by the elderly, who dislike noise and disturbance and would like to be in bed by 9pm.)
I’ve lived in Melbourne for the past three years, and came back to Perth this summer to relax for a while and see my family before moving on to the UK. I am something of a Melbourne snob now, but I still don’t hate Perth as much as I used to, because I know that I can leave now; I no longer feel trapped. I can understand why it appeals to a certain type of person, particularly older British migrants who want peace and quiet and warmth, or young Australians who don’t care about the isolation or lack of culture, and just love the hot weather and the beach. Whatever floats your boat.
Many people – usually people who have never lived elsewhere – have been keen to tell me that Perth has changed, by which they usually mean that the liquor licenses have been relaxed somewhat and there are some small bars now… but they still have to close at midnight on Friday. The CBD is still a ghost town on a weeknight after 6pm, it’s still near-impossible to get a restaurant meal after 9pm, and public transport is still virtually non-existent. It’s still a worst-case scenario in terms of suburban sprawl, stretching nearly 100 kilometres from Port Kennedy in the south to Alkimos in the north.
But I’m not interested in bashing Perth anymore. It’s a suburban wasteland, sure, fine, whatever. Some people like that. “If you don’t love it, leave,” as they say, and fair enough. I did leave. What I want to do is point out that the local media frenzy about a single NYT travel article is evidence that Perth still hasn’t outgrown its inferiority complex; its anxiety about its place not just in the world, but in Australia.
A rose-tinted travel article is not proof that Perth is now the equal of Melbourne or Sydney or, as the NYT writer on the all-expenses-paid junket says, Brooklyn. It is proof that travel writers have a certain number of column inches to fill each year, and need to attract a certain number of eyeballs. When writing about an Australian city, you can either churn out another article about Sydney or Melbourne, cities every foreigner has heard of, or you can look a little further, find a lesser-known city, and talk it up a bit. It’s the same reason Lonely Planet listed Adelaide in its top ten cities for Best In Travel 2014: not because Adelaide is genuinely a better destination than Sydney or Melbourne, but because Lonely Planet needs to keep things fresh and avoid repeating itself so that it can sell more books. That’s how the travel writing industry works.
Working yourself up into a lather about a travel piece – whether you’re local media gushing excitedly, or a self-congratulatory expat sneering at it – is silly. Perth was not praised in the New York Times because it has become a great city. It was praised in the New York Times because such articles serve as good clickbait.