This timeless Australian city faced rough seas in the last decade, but its business district, iconic harbour and tourism operators are swelling with optimism.
Sydney’s harbour is particularly serene this glorious morning. Watching the crests of waves from our bow catch the morning sunlight, the reflected sparkles are hypnotic. A body of water so big, at 55 sq km it could almost swallow the entire island of Manhattan. Also known as Port Jackson Bay, it has forever been a beacon of wonder for visitors and the source of a great sense of pride for residents.
Speak to any Sydneysider who flies into the city after a prolonged absence and they’ll tell you there’s an indescribable feeling when the tentacled, arterial-like branches of Port Jackson come into view. I left the city a decade ago for a different life in Melbourne, but a cruise on an iconic Sydney ferry is a welcome recharge of the batteries and a reminder that this city will always feel like home.
Like many of the great global cities around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically shifted its commercial, political and socio-economic dimensions. Sydney experienced some of the strictest Covid-related lockdowns in the Western world. Most international visitors were denied entry to the country from April 2020, and citizens abroad were forced into 14 days mandatory hotel quarantine if they wanted to return. Borders reopened to the world in February this year, but during its longest stretch in 2021, Sydney residents were locked down for 107 days. Household visits were banned and travel beyond a 5km radius was restricted to certain exempt workers.
But today there’s an obvious sense of optimism as I beeline for a famous harbourside neighbourhood called The Rocks. There’s a sense here that life has returned to normal. This wedge of land just below the southern pylon of Sydney Harbour Bridge was named after the construction of its original sandstone buildings. It’s in this spot that the families of soldiers and convicts would set up their lives and go on to birth modern Sydney.
Fast forward more than 200 years and, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, both tourists and well-dressed workers from Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) fill the cafés and historic pubs that spew out into the cobblestone laneways – an attempt by local authorities to encourage more outdoor dining and social distancing.
An urban planner once told me that to measure the investment in a city at any single moment in time, you only need to look for the cranes in its skyline. Nowhere is this more evident than in the estimated AU$6 billion (US$4.02 billion), globally renowned, urban-renewal project on the western waterfront of Sydney’s CBD.
Better known as Barangaroo – named after a female indigenous leader of the local Eora Nation at the time of European colonisation – this project has transformed a disused container terminal into a thriving waterfront and business precinct. Development began on the site in 2012 and is expected to be completed by 2024.
Featuring parkland, bars, restaurants and residential apartments, Barangaroo is also home to the new (and locally controversial) Crown Barangaroo casino and Crown Towers hotel, built by Australian billionaire James Packer. It’s an imposing landmark on the city’s skyline which has reminded locals about, and attracted tourists to, this rejuvenated district.
Recent data from digital outdoor media company QMS showed that throughout April and May 2022, domestic visitor numbers across Sydney’s CBD were 90 per cent of average 2019 levels, despite the impacts experienced from Covid-19 shutdowns. According to QMS, there are more than 20,000 businesses in the City of Sydney and they generate AU$138 billion (US$92.5 billion) or 7 per cent of Australia’s entire GDP.
The best way to validate these figures is to speak with those at the coalface, and on my next stop I meander into Tate and Lyle, a busy local barber shop on the northern side of the city, owned by Jacob Martin.
Businesses like Martin’s (which opened only a few months before the events of March 2020) are reliant on city trade. But Martin tells me, at least for his modest five-chair operation, that people are back and business is booming. “I’m very lucky. I call where we’re located, the ‘golden triangle’,” he says. Business is also different from before, with flexible working arrangements changing the way people use their downtime. “We’re busy on Mondays, and trying to get somewhere for dinner on a Thursday in the city is impossible. It’s weird,” he adds.
Fiercely criticised by some business leaders at the time, there’s now no denying that Australia’s aggressive state-by-state approach to shuttering cities during the pandemic saved lives. In fact, many in the current conservative state government argue it was actually this level of draconian-like control measures which has allowed places like Sydney to ‘bounce back’ so ferociously.
Tale of two cities
Rewind eight years, when Covid-19 would have seemed like the plot of a science fiction novel, and the city was plagued by another virus; except this one was political.
The so-called ‘lockout’ laws (officially the Liquor Amendment Act 2014) were enacted following a spate of alcohol-fuelled violence and deaths in the CBD. The conservative state government of the day imposed curfews in popular areas such as Kings Cross, prohibiting entry to drinking venues after 1.30am, and requiring bars to cease all liquor service after 3am. The new laws significantly damaged late-night trade and a report to parliament found that they had cost the economy AU$16 million (US$10.72 million).
After Sydney’s Covid lockdowns, many of these laws were lifted to encourage patronage and new businesses, but in the meantime the laws inadvertently pushed commerce and trade to other parts of the city. New late-night hubs that weren’t subjected to the laws, such as Newtown, emerged. Marrickville in the city’s once grungy inner-west is now home to eight craft breweries, brewpubs (a restaurant that sells beer brewed on the premises) and a slew of small wine bars.
Gregg Peek, co-founder and general manager of Dave’s Tours Sydney, operated a strong, domestic-focused business running tours through the region’s wineries and city breweries before the pandemic, and with no international travel options, things actually got busier in 2021.
“People like drinking when times are good and people are drinking when times are bad,” he says. “And so if we weren’t involved in alcohol [before the pandemic], I don’t know exactly where we would be.” Despite being in the depths of Sydney’s winter, Peek and his team are on track to achieve their second record month of tour sales in a row.
The urge to return
Like my own earlier self-reflection on the ferry, there are other former Sydneysiders who have begun to feel the irrepressible urge to return to Australia’s largest city. Either to live or simply just to get that sunny, beachside fix.
Call it a revaluation of priorities or the city’s inescapable beauty, a host of big-name celebrities – Nicole Kidman, Isla Fisher and Rose Byrne to name just a few – have all begun an unofficial pilgrimage home.
Celebrity chef Curtis Stone and his wife Lindsay Price were also recently lured back to the city by Destination NSW, the government agency promoting tourism and events in New South Wales. The agency launched the You Tube TV series Carry on with Curtis and Lindsay on September 25, showing the couple rediscovering the best bars, restaurants and attractions the city has to offer.
Despite figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing a 58 per cent decrease in short-term overseas visitors to Australia in June 2022 compared to the same month in 2019, Destination NSW chief executive Steve Cox says his state is well-prepared to welcome international visitors again.
“The NSW Visitor Economy Strategy 2030 aims to ensure New South Wales is the premier visitor economy of the Asia-Pacific by 2030,” Cox says. The goal of the strategy is to achieve AU$65 billion (US$43.5 billion) in visitor expenditure by 2030, he adds.
“New South Wales came out on top in the latest figures from Tourism Research Australia, which reveal it was the number one destination for domestic visitors during the year ending March 2022. There’s tangible excitement in the air as Sydney celebrates a revival and we enter the roaring 2020s,” Cox says.
Another short stroll from Barangaroo, I meet Nick Lester, general manager of Captain Cook Cruises at King Street Wharf. We chat over coffee onboard his company’s newest flagship superyacht, The Jackson.
The luxury AU$15 million (US$10.05 million) vessel, with a rooftop cocktail bar and high-end restaurant, launched in February and can cater for up to 700 guests across three huge decks. Like most internationally focused tour operators, 2020 was a year to forget. In what was supposed to be a celebration of 50 years of riding the waves of Sydney Harbour, Captain Cook Cruises stared down a nearly 90 per cent loss in revenue.
While the launch of The Jackson represents a significant turning point for the company’s fortunes, Lester says one of its future aims is to capture a new market of experience-hungry, young Sydney residents. He says he expects 2024 to be the year when things go back to normal.
“Our business is still heavily skewed towards the tourism component. You might add on a cruise if you’re visiting Sydney for a short time,” Lester says. “So the domestic market is going to take a little more time. But we can tell we really are in a bit of a Renaissance sort of era… it’s almost like a post-war boom after a crisis that we’re about to come out of.”
News that Sydney will host the first iteration of the South By South West Festival (SXSW) outside of the US in 2023 has added increasing optimism. “It doesn’t get any bigger than this for the music, screen, gaming and tech world,” says Destination NSW’s Cox. “It will further cement Sydney’s reputation as the creative industries’ hub and events capital of the Asia-Pacific region.”
The pandemic showed that Sydney is resilient. Its businesses rise and fall, and rise again, like the gentle crest of a harbour swell. Sydney is a place of immense growth and although I don’t call it home anymore, I’m still a proud Sydneysider sailing its wave of optimism in 2022.
Crown Towers Sydney
A luxurious new five-star hotel in Sydney’s Barangaroo development, Crown Towers Sydney is the highest hotel building in the city, an imposing harbourside landmark with 349 guest rooms, an infinity pool with cabanas, poolside service and 14 restaurants.
Part of the swanky, US-owned Ace Hotel group, this chic, yet casual, boutique hotel has been crafted inside Surry Hills’ former Tyne House brick factory. With 264 rooms (complete with your own in-room record player) and on-site restaurant Loam, Ace Sydney leads the charge in the surge of boutique hotels sprouting throughout the city post-pandemic.
A by Adina Sydney
This new boutique aparthotel near Wynyard train station offers studio, executive and two-bedroom apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the southern end of George Street. At 22 floors above the city, this high-end, architecturally designed hotel boasts a heated indoor pool, gym on level 21, and Dean and Nancy, an award-winning speakeasy bar in the sky.
Set to open in late 2023, the Marriott-owned property within Sydney’s newly constructed ‘Ribbon’ building will include 585 rooms, an IMAX theatre and retail precinct.
Words: Jeremy Drake