The city of Hobart, with its population of 250,000 people, sits on the southern coast of Tasmania, Australia’s island state. Compared with the hustle and bustle of Sydney or Melbourne, it’s serene and spacious, with expansive views, striking 19th-century architecture and a world-class food and wine scene. The one-of-a-kind Museum of Old and New Art creates yet another draw for tourists; so does the island’s extraordinary natural beauty.
Over the past decade, Hobart has also become increasingly popular as a permanent destination: its population increased by about 10% between 2011 and 2018.
Formerly Australia’s poorest state, Tasmania has sometimes been the butt of jokes, especially among those who have either never visited, or grown up and left for good. In a recent domestic skirmish, where Queensland was left out of Tasmania’s “travel bubble,” the state’s deputy premier declared: “I don’t see any reason why anyone would want to go to Tassie.”
People outside of Australia may know it only for its unique fauna, including the Tasmanian devil or via the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix series Nanette touches on the challenges of growing up there. (She describes it as “a little island floating off the arse end of mainland Australia,” known for its potato farming and “frighteningly small gene pool.”)
But as a place to live, Tasmania has become increasingly attractive to Australians and foreigners alike in a way that might have seemed unlikely even a decade ago. In 2015, the state had its first positive quarter of interstate migration in four years; since then, a steady trickle of migrants have made their way to the Apple Isle, as it’s sometimes known, often citing climate change concerns and lower house prices as reasons for the move. Many, particularly in Hobart, are international students.
Now, with Covid spikes in Victoria and New South Wales, Tasmania – with the 150-mile Bass Strait as its moat – has seldom seemed more appealing. In the past quarter, Tasmania has become Australia’s best-performing state economy for the first time since 2009, with annual growth of about 5%. It ranked first in the country for relative population growth, relative unemployment, equipment investment and retail trade. More than 13,000 people are now members of a “That’s It, I’m Moving to Tassie” Facebook group, for people “considering or dreaming about making the big move to Tasmania”. A planned AU$200m ($144m) expansion to its international airport will further connect Hobart to the world.
Even before the pandemic, many Australians had begun what Lisa Denny, a demographer from the University of Tasmania, describes as a “value reset”. Between the bush fires and other extreme weather events, “the cost of insurance, the risks, the interruptions to life and the devastation that have been attached to it, people have been seeking out safer, more secure and less expensive places to live,” she says. “For many people, [the pandemic] will reinforce or bring forward decisions to move or change their lifestyle, or change what work they do and how they work.”
Kailey Milroy and her husband had been weighing a move to Hobart since 2017. In 2018, while they were still living in Milroy’s hometown of Vancouver, the couple deputised her husband’s parents to travel from New South Wales and view a house for them. They bought it, sight unseen, and let out. Until June, the couple and their two young children had been living in Newcastle, New South Wales, two hours north of Sydney. But when their tenant in Hobart asked to end her lease early, the family decided to take the plunge and relocate. “We really love it,” Milroy says. “We’ve already met some people, and our neighbours have been super-welcoming.”
Under normal circumstances, the family might have waited a few more years to move. But the year’s news cycle – first, the aggressive bush fires; next, the isolation from nearby friends and family during lockdown – created new incentives to move. “It just made us realise, all the things we were worried about, with moving to Hobart, we can manage that,’” she says. “And it was somewhere we really wanted to be, so it felt worthwhile to give it a shot.”
With no new data on arrivals to Tasmania expected for a matter of months, it’s hard to hypothesise accurately about either current or future migration, says Denny. The pandemic will necessarily curtail overseas migration, possibly for years to come, but it’s not clear what effect it will have on interstate migration, particularly if Australian employers embrace remote work with the same enthusiasm as some of their international neighbours.
Still, for the last few years, around 14,000 people have arrived in Tasmania each year, roughly evenly split between international and interstate migration; of these, about 11% are ages 25 to 29. Each year, about 12,000 people have also left, however, for a net gain of about 2,000 residents.
The effect on housing over this time has been noticeable. At about $510,000, the median house price in Hobart is a fraction of the median in Sydney ($975,000) or Melbourne ($775,000) but roughly the same as in Brisbane, Adelaine or Perth. But prices in Hobart are rising – and rapidly. Hobart’s median house price has risen more than 50%, from $347,000, in the past five years. (In Brisbane, by contrast, house prices have barely changed; in Perth, they’ve actually dipped). Despite the pandemic, Hobart housing prices continue to rise, with an increase in cost of about 1% in the past quarter and 11% in the past year, exceeding every other state capital.
Ingrid Boone bought a property in Hobart this year, arriving from Sydney just three hours before lockdown began. For the next six weeks, she says, she took extended leave from her work as a retail merchandiser and renovated the house and garden. “As I was here, even in lockdown, I just fell in love with my house – with the view, with the climate, with the opportunity to garden,” Boone says.
Returning to Sydney was a wrench. “This dark cloud came over me – it was a horrible time mentally,” she says. When a job opened up in Tasmania, Boone lost no time in accepting it and returning. “The word ‘yes’ just came out of my mouth. I couldn’t get back down here quick enough,” she says. “I’ve just been absolutely in heaven.” Though the distance from her two adult daughters, who both live on the mainland, has been a struggle, she’s blissfully happy in her new home. “Every single day, the beauty of the place, it just takes my breath away,” Boone says. “I’ve fallen in love with Hobart and have not for one single second regretted it.”
Though migrants to Tasmania often mention the lower cost of land as a particular pull, there are other Australian regions that are comparable in price. The clinching factor often comes down to questions of climate and lifestyle.
For Mike Olsen, an IT worker originally from Queensland, even the mandatory AU$2,800 quarantine fee – and two weeks in a government-appointed facility – didn’t put him off making the leap. “I’ve been to Tasmania a number of times. I’ve always been interested in living here,” he says. “And after the first wave of Covid, I chose to quit my job, spend a little time with family up in Queensland and then come down here.”
Though Olsen is currently waiting out his time in a quarantine hotel, he plans to spend around a month exploring Tasmania, with a view to finding work in IT and a block of land to buy, likely a half hour outside Hobart. Olsen had been thinking about the move for a number of years, he says, “mainly because I love nature, and Tasmania is full of nature – amazing hikes down here.” Lower land prices, compared with much of the rest of Australia, are another draw. “It’s got a lot of things going for it,” he says.
In the past, a lack of jobs prevented many would-be migrants from moving to Tasmania before retirement. But more awareness around the potential for remote work could tip the balance in the state’s favour. “It might give people the impetus to be able to choose where they live, but we really don’t know until we start seeing the numbers,” Denny says. “It’s going to be very interesting to see play out, but I think Tasmania is well positioned to be attractive for people to live in, in a changing world.”
Natasha Frost is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
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Contributing writer to City Monitor.