A long-awaited tourism boon

<em>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</em>
Illustration: michaelmucci.com

From the outback to the Gold Coast, investment is pouring into indigenous tourism, with results so far proving popular with local and overseas visitors.

Is Australia finally getting serious about indigenous tourism? From the Red Centre to the theme parks of the Gold Coast, Aboriginal culture is experiencing a surge of exposure in tourism operations.

Mining royalties, government grants and the persistence of culturally minded tourism operators are bringing developments in what has always been a difficult arena.

Ayers Rock Resort now has a popular indigenous activities program, and the Wilpena Pound Resort in South Australia has come under indigenous ownership, with plans for Aboriginal touring and employment.

In the Top End, the indigenous-owned Wildman Wilderness Lodge is in its second season, while the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land have won an $825,000 grant to develop a tourism master plan for the region.

In Queensland, an impressive $20 million indigenous eco-tourism development has opened at Mossman Gorge, north of Cairns, with local Aboriginal people making up the majority of employees and tours including exclusive access to indigenous land.

Another development is taking place on the Gold Coast, with Dreamworld being awarded a $1 million grant for an indigenous experience at the park.

The federal government grant will help turn the park's existing "wildlife experience", which includes more than 800 native animals, into an Australian Aboriginal wildlife experience.

A theme park might seem an unlikely player in cultural tourism, but Dreamworld says it has been working with indigenous clans for the past two years and has a "reconciliation action plan" to increase cultural awareness at all levels of its operations.

The park is yet to release details of what the Aboriginal experience will include but has said the first stage is due for completion late next year, with the government grant to be matched by its own money. Also, the $825,000 grant awarded to the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land is expected to create up to 50 new indigenous-owned tourism businesses in the next 20 years.

The Lirrwi Yolngu Aboriginal Tourism Corporation expects to attract a further $2.25 million in corporate funding over three years to support the program.

The federal Minister for Tourism, Martin Ferguson, says he believes the potential of indigenous tourism has been "so far untapped".

"Indigenous tourism is a large part of what makes Australia unique as a destination," he says. "These products and experiences also address important issues, such as the creation of employment and improvement of business skills for indigenous people."

An indigenous tourism champion, Grant Hunt, who was recognised at this year's Australian Tourism Awards for his work in eco and cultural tourism, says mining royalties have been one of the biggest factors in boosting indigenous tourism.

"Increasingly, indigenous communities are benefiting from mining royalties on their land and they are able to make investments in tourism," he says. "I think the resources sector has really helped in that regard. It's broken a lot of the shackles."

Asked whether Australia is getting more serious about indigenous tourism, Hunt says there has been no lack of commitment in the past.

"It's just hard. It's so hard to get it up and running, especially in remote areas," he says. "Making a remote lodge or regional property stack up is hard enough without being in the niche of indigenous tourism."

Hunt is the chairman and founder of the Anthology group, which runs Wildman Wilderness Lodge and has been appointed to run the Wilpena Pound Resort on behalf of its new indigenous owners.

He says the key to successful indigenous tourism operations is having expertise in the "back end", such as finance and hotel operations.

"They [indigenous people] are really interested in the consumer-facing stuff," he says. "They want to talk to people about their culture and their land, but you need to do the other stuff as well."

Hunt says that although there are big plans for Wilpena Pound Resort, which has been bought by a joint venture of Indigenous Business Australia and the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, it is likely to be at least 12 months before there is anything to show for it.

With the "local" Aborigines now living away in regional centres, he expects finding people who are prepared to live at the resort to be one of the biggest challenges.

"We could do some window dressing [by bringing in Aboriginal faces from outside the area] but that's not sustainable," he says. "We need to be patient and set the structures up right."

Culture club

Ayers Rock Resort says about 70 per cent of guests take part in its new free indigenous activities program.

The resort says Australian and international visitors are equally involved in the activities, which run to a daily schedule and include cultural performances, spear and boomerang throwing, children's art classes, garden walks and indigenous art markets.

The resort is pleased with the take-up of the program, which started in May, and expects guest participation to continue to grow.

This story A long-awaited tourism boon first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.