PHOTO: The original Australians have entered Australian tourism and are speaking for a living antiquity. (Courtesy of Tourism Australia)
People often imagine Australia as a new country, first settled by Europeans in 1788, a member of the British Commonwealth by 1907. Australia is not young at all. Its oldest features dwarf even the oldest Asian and European antiquities. Australia’s indigenous people belong to the world’s oldest living human culture, which is at least 28,000 years old. About 500 groups fall under the broad category of “Aboriginal” and ever since 2006, when former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd started the Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) in order to “build positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” they’ve been more and more a part of the country’s tourism.
In June, the Western Australian government put up $4.6 million to develop indigenous tourism products. They hope to double the value of WA’s tourism to $12 billion by 2020. That’s real money. Indigenous Australians want a piece of that prosperity. Tourism also helps them explain their ways to people outside of their culture.
Across Australia, hundreds of indigenous owned and operated tourism businesses are prospering, none bigger than Ayers Rock Resort. Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia manages the resort as well as the nearby Longitude 131, the Home Valley Station in WA’s Kimberley region and the Mossman Gorge in Northern Queensland. Voyages specializes in such activities as Children's Indigenous Art Classes; Bush Tucker Yarns: How Locals Live Off The Land; Spear and Boomerang Throwing; Performances from the Wakagetti Cultural Dance Troup; Interactive Didgeridoo Performances; Indigenous Art Markets and Guided Garden Walks.
The resort’s Sound of Silence Dinner, one of the earliest “experiential tourism” attractions, was joined a few years ago by another "under the stars" dining experience, Tali Wiru or “Beautiful Dune” in the local Anangu language.
Tali Wiru is limited to groups of 20 and uses an indigenous story teller. The evening begins with Champagne and canapés around the fire. As the sun sets over Uluru (Ayers Rock), guests make their way to the top of a dune to take in the changing colors and begin an intimate, four-course dinner coupled with premium Australian wines. The Anangu storyteller tells celestial creation stories while coffee, tea and dessert wine is served. The Ayers Rock Resorts will launch a full series of events this spring at the resort beginning with the return of the Tjungu Festival (April 23 to 26). The Tjungu Festival uses film, art, sport, music food and fashion to celebrate indigenous culture.
The Northern Territory, home to so many indigenous peoples, seems to be well ahead of the other Australian states in promoting and developing indigenous tourism. In the Katherine Region, the Top Didj Cultural Experience brings travelers together with indigenous artists who tell stories and display traditional activities from their way of life. Indigenous owned, Nitmiluk Tours, operates in Nitmiluk National Park, running cruises, bush walking, helicopter touring, swimming under natural waterfalls and cultural interaction programs.
The Mbantua Sunset & Starlight Bush Dinner tour departs from Alice Springs and includes a visit to the historic Telegraph Reserve and Simpsons Gap. Dinner is set amongst a scenic bush setting under the starlight with a three-course meal, cooked over an open fire complemented with bush food delicacies. The Cultural Center inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to a cooperative of 800 indigenous artists that specialize in carving and painting. The cooperative is owned and operated by the Anangu people.
An eco-wilderness retreat on Bremer Island in North East Arnhem Land operates tours and fishing as well as bird and turtle watching and the opportunity to experience Yolgnu Culture. The Tiwi Islands are part of a day tour that explores the cultural and linguistic differences between the Polynesian-influenced Tiwi people and the indigenous people of Arnhem Land just across the water.
Companies like Epic Private Journeys work with many indigenous companies to explore what it calls “the far-flung regions and hidden corners” of Australia and brings travelers to areas such as Tropical North Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley Region. In Queensland they put together walks led by tribal elders to ancient Aboriginal rock art sites in Quinkan Country. Likewise in the Northern Territory’s Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge they visit rock art that's estimated to be about 40,000 years old.
As these businesses thrive in Australia, they’re stimulating an international dialogue between Aboriginal people in different countries. The first Pacific Asia Indigenous Tourism Conference was held in 2012 in Darwin. It attracted indigenous tourism delegations from around the world including a group of Oglala Lakota Sioux.
The conference adopted the Larrakia Declaration, calling for an indigenous tourism “based on traditional knowledge, cultures and practices,” that contributes to the wellbeing of indigenous communities, the environment and that “provides a strong vehicle for cultural understanding, social interaction and peace.” The declaration was endorsed by both PATA and the UNWTO.
It also launched the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance in order to “to create and support an international network of indigenous individuals and groups dedicated to tourism development.” The alliance includes such indigenous groups as Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori and the Sami of Arctic Europe to name a few. Australia’s Indigenous Tourism Champions Program was launched in 2009 in order to develop top quality, highly marketable indigenous products for inbound tour operators. Champion companies include accommodations, attractions, tours, festivals and art centers. The Pacific Asia Indigenous Tourism Conference (PAITC) is coming to Vancouver this coming fall (Sept. 12 to 15).