How the WA town of Kulin reinvented itself and brought the tourists flooding in
The giant waterslide at Kulin in WA’s Wheatbelt is attracting tourism dollars. (ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)
As capital cities get bigger and country towns get smaller, the question of how to attract skilled people to regional Australia has never been so pertinent.
- The tiny town of Kulin in WA’s Wheatbelt is home to the state’s largest waterslide outside Perth
- Scores of people visit from across the state, boosting the town’s economy
- Kulin considers itself a benchmark for revival in regional communities around Australia
To help ease the growing pains of our most congested cities there have even been calls by Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population Minister, Alan Tudge, to force new migrants to live in the bush.
But what if a small town could reverse the drift of people to the city by itself?
More than two decades ago, faced with a declining population, councillors in the remote farming town of Kulin in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt gambled on an unlikely solution.
“We were looking for some way to promote the town because some of these towns are dying, and some will keep dying, and we wanted to keep Kulin as one of the ones that kept going,” former shire president Graeme Robertson said.
“We surveyed the town to see what it needed and wanted and the kids came back and said they wanted a pool slide.”
A community not known for doing things in halves, Kulin is now home to a 182-metre-long slide — the largest in the state outside of Perth.
Former Kulin shire presidents Graeme Robertson and John Bell say the waterslide is much more than just another regional Australian “big thing”. (ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)
Another former shire president, John Bell, had found it for sale in Tanawha on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
“A small pool slide was going to cost $50,000, and John being the entrepreneur he was travelled around and had a look for another one that was bigger and better,” Mr Robertson said.
Funded by $1 million bequeathed by a local farmer to improve sport and recreation in the town and snapped up for the bargain price of $25,000, locals volunteered to take four trucks and five trailers across the Nullarbor to Queensland to collect the massive structure.
Once the 10,000km return journey was complete it was refurbished, re-erected for about $300,000 and opened to the public in 2001.
Not your average big thing
The slide was assembled in Kulin in 2001 and has been a huge attraction ever since. (Supplied: Kulin Shire Council)
Unlike many of the nation’s other “big things”, it has not been left to languish with chipped paint on the side of a highway or erected to serve as a quick photo opportunity for tourists in the unlikely event they found themselves 300kms east of Perth in WA’s vast broadacre cropping country.
“We were more looking at our own community at the time because a lot of people were leaving,” Mr Bell said.
“If you want tradesman to come to these little towns or professionals of any type you’ve got to have the facilities for them to make the town their home.
“I don’t know if we envisaged it would work. We just bloody hoped it would be a success.”
By any measure it has been, attracting local families and scores of visitors from across the south of the state during summer.
The slide costs just $2 a day for children and $4 a day for adults. (ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)
Suga Arumugam says he made the 300km trip from Perth to visit Kulin with friends. (ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)
The slide is just one of a string of grass root strategies the Kulin community has enacted to attract tourism dollars, businesses and new families to the area.
The town is also home to one of the oldest community-run banks in the country, hosts an annual horse racing event and has even embraced the infamous Burning Man Festival, hosting a regional leg called “Blazing Swan,” where a swan-shaped wooden effigy is built and burned each year.
Now in it’s 25th year, the Kulin Bush Race was attended by 4,000 visitors this October with Blazing Swan attracting up to 2,500 “burners” to Kulin over the Easter period.
Mr Bell said that since the 1990s Kulin’s population had almost doubled to about 450 people.
Kulin a benchmark for small communities
The small community has been hailed by renowned economic and community consultant, Peter Kenyon, as a benchmark for regional towns struggling to survive.
The 2017 Senior Western Australian of the Year, who worked with Kulin in the 1990s, said if towns wanted to turn their population declines around they had to find it within themselves.
“We’ve got to stop thinking someone from outside has the right program, the right money and the right expertise to come and save us.” Mr Kenyon said.
“These towns have the ability to do it. And places like the Kulins of this world have demonstrated it is possible.”
Community activist Peter Kenyon says regional communities can benefit from thinking outside the box. (ABC Great Southern: Mark Bennett)
Mr Kenyon, who travels across the country and the world to work with communities on economic renewal strategies, said sparks of community creativity were saving other towns.
“The classic initiative was the [Victorian] town of Brim who really instigated what’s now become a national movement, the silo art movement,” Mr Kenyon said.
“The people who kicked it off were smart enough to realise people weren’t going to drive out of Melbourne or Adelaide for a weekend to look at one set of artwork on one set of silos.
“But if you actually got six or seven towns you do have some product to draw people out and boy has it been sucessful.”