Inside story – July 2012

By Ian McMahon

Indigenous tourismA QUIET revolution is under way within Australian Indigenous tourism.Investment dollars and government grants are fuelling initiatives that will add a new professionalism to the presentation of Australia’s ancient Indigenous culture, already a major lure for international visitors and a growing attraction for domestic travellers.

At the same time structures are being put in place to secure Indigenous control of tourism businesses and to ensure the jobs they generate go primarily to Aboriginal people.

Working with Indigenous leaders such as the chairman of the Lirrwi Yolngu Tourism Aboriginal Corporation, Djawa Murrmurrnga (Timmy) Burarrwanga are a number of veteran tourism industry figures including former Qantas boss and current Tourism Australia chairman Geoff Dixon, former Tourism Australia managing director John Morse and former Accor and Hilton heavyweight Koos Klein.

Klein was planning a lifestyle of semi-retirement when he returned to Australia in 2008 after a decade in Asia with Hilton International.

But a two-day a week consulting project for the Indigenous Land Council (ILC) changed all that.
He now heads Voyages Indigenous Tourism, formed to operate the Voyages properties acquired by the ILC in Uluru, as well as Home Valley Station in the Kimberleys and the Mossman Gorge Centre in the Daintree Rainforest. 

“I was so enamoured of what was happening that I agreed to work full time,” he said. “It is so fulfilling. I can see a lot of good coming from it. It is a game changer.”

Morse makes the same sort of comments. Since moving on from Tourism Australia in the wake of the success of the 2000 Olympics, Morse has played a prominent role in Indigenous tourism. As a director of Voyages Hotels and Resorts he chaired the Mutitjulu Foundation and as advisor on Indigenous tourism to the director of Parks Australia he formulated a new strategic direction for Kakadu tourism.

Now he finds himself deeply involved with Timmy Burarrwanga, in developing the Yolngu Cultural Tourism Masterplan which aims to create sustainable employment and lasting economic benefits for Yolngu people throughout Arnhem Land.

Enthused by the prospects, he says: “This will see out the rest of my working career.” 

Klein sums up the transformation that is taking place within Voyages with a few statistics.

When the ILC took over the company in May last year it had two indigenous employees. A month ago there were 125 – substantial progress towards the target of 50 per cent of the 700 employees by 2018. 

“I have two KPIs (key performance indicators),” said Klein. “One is to maximise employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians; the other is to make an old fashioned profit.”

The ILC is an independent government agency with a charter to manage indigenous land holdings for the benefit of the traditional owners.

Initially involved mainly in pastoral activities it has used the revenue generated from them to purchase Voyages’ Uluru assets – Ayers Rock Resort and Longitude 131.

Klein and his team are now working with the local Anangu community to develop and reposition the resort, in Klein’s words, “as an Indigenous centre of excellence – not a tourist trap, not something tacky but a genuine Indigenous experience”.

The company has introduced a range of complimentary guest activities including guided or self-guided walks through local native flora, Indigenous art classes, bush yarns in the “Circle of Sand” with a local

Anangu storyteller, spear and boomerang throwing classes, didgeridoo playing, bush tucker tours, Indigenous art markets, and traditional dance performances.

It is also investing significant sums in the resort. By October Sails in the Desert will have been refurbished to five-star standards with a sophisticated contemporary design and a new conference centre for groups up to 400 will have opened. Klein says conferences currently account for less than four per cent of Ayers Rock Resort’s business but he expects this to climb to around 15 per cent.

Alongside this investment in hardware is an investment in people to ensure that Indigenous people benefit from the jobs created.
At the heart of these plans has been the establishment of the National Indigenous Training Academy. Graduates will be guaranteed a job within Voyages (at Uluru, Home Valley Station or Mossman Gorge).
A registered training organisation (RTO), the academy will provide graduates with nationally recognised qualifications. Initially these will be in tourism and hospitality but over time will also include trade courses for the likes of electricians or mechanics.
The academy is set up for an intake of 30 graduates per quarter. A year ago the first classes attracted 27 trainees and the following quarter 25 signed up. By the next quarter the quota of 30 was “easily” filled, said Klein, and there were 57 applications for the available places in this month’s intake.

“A momentum has built in the indigenous communities as the word has got around that we’re a good place to work,” said Klein.

In Arnhem Land, meanwhile, Timmy Burarrwanga and John Morse are working towards a shared vision of creating thriving Indigenous-owned tourism businesses across Australia’s Top End.

It is a vision inspired partly by what Morse observed in Africa’s Okavango where he was “blown away” by the experience provided by safari camps managed by Indigenous communities.

A key to their success has been air links, and Morse said the numerous small air strips built by mining companies between Gove, Darwin and Cairns provide “fantastic infra-structure” for Australia’s Indigenous people to bring visitors from around the world to enjoy authentic cross cultural experiences such as traditional fishing with spears and nets, story-telling and bush medicine.

“Imagine a network of small cultural tourism camps dotted across Arnhem Land and it’s very easy to see how exciting this concept is,” said Morse.

“We’re not talking mass tourism, we’re not talking five-star, we’re talking about raw, enriching, life-changing experiences.” 

Burarrwanga, a Gumatj man from Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land, has developed the Yolngu Cultural Tourism Masterplan, creating a long term vision based on Aboriginal leadership.

The Federal Government this month gave the plan a big boost with a grant of $825,000.

“We have been sharing our culture with visitors for many years, but we now want to move to the next stage and create a new economy based on cultural tourism in Arnhem Land,” Burarrwanga said.

“We want to introduce people from Australia and all over the world to our country, our dance, our music, our ceremonies, our art and our unique way of life.

“During the next 20 years we will see the creation of many new small businesses which our children will inherit.

“This will help us stay connected to our homelands and our culture, creating employment for hundreds of Yolngu people while providing life-changing experiences for our visitors.” 

Morse described the plan as “a new model for Indigenous economic development”. 

He said it will draw on the experience of the most qualified people in Australia to help build sustainable businesses. 

Notably it will receive guidance from an expert panel led by Yolngu Elder from Elcho Island, Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra.

Morse said the first person he approached to serve on the expert panel was Geoff Dixon. “It took him about 10 seconds to agree,” he said. (Dixon is a longtime supporter of Indigenous causes. It is a little-publicised fact that, during the attempted private equity buyout of Qantas, he and his family pledged that any wealth accruing to them would go into a trust to benefit Indigenous Australians.)

Other members of the panel include inbound tourism doyen Bill Wright, Australia’s top tourism bureaucrat Jane Madden, and prominent Melbourne academic and cultural advisor Andrea Hull. To bolster the support from the Federal Government, Lirrwi is also seeking support from the private sector. 

Morse is delighted by the initial response with seven corporate partners already committed. They are seeking another 10. “The enthusiasm and support for the master plan indicates a very strong will by the government and the corporate sector to listen to the voices of Aboriginal people and help make a significant difference to their economic and cultural future,” he said.

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