Indigenous tourism is “tourism activity in which indigenous people are directly involved either through control and/or by having their culture serve as the essence of the attraction”.
Ideally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be able to assert some degree of control over their engagement with tourism and should secure benefits from this.
One positive outcome that Indigenous tourism can offer is opportunities to foster reconciliation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use tourism to bridge the cultural divides and create better futures by sharing culture, knowledge and country.
Settler-colonial states such as Australia have sought strategies to reconcile their divided peoples. One significant catalyst in Australia was the hosting of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. This placed a spotlight on human rights conditions and marked a moment when the country tried to project a reconciled identity.
There is a long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement with travel and tourism. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been travelling between each others’ nations for millennia, sharing culture and ceremonies.
After colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples tried to access the settler economy by presenting aspects of their culture and selling handicrafts. One example is the performance of “corroborees”, as occurred in Adelaide in 1911 for instance.
The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation led a decade-long effort in the 1990s to move Australia forward. It promoted the vision of:
A united Australia which respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and provides justice and equity for all.
One key element of the process was described as the:
… education of non-Aboriginal Australians about the cultures of Australia’s indigenous peoples and the causes of division, discord and continuing injustice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Reconciliation through tourism
Indigenous tourism is a way for non-Indigenous Australians to hear about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences and learn from their cultures.
This is important because, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise only about 3% of Australia’s total population, non-Indigenous Australians can live their lives with little cultural interaction.
Experiences potentially fostering reconciliation include sharing history, learning on country, sharing culture, tours travelling the Songlines, connecting through native foods, and celebrating through arts, music and dance.
Reconciliation isn’t easy
The culture divide between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians is not easy to bridge. Uluru, also called Ayers Rock by some, is a case in point.
After the 1985 handback under land rights legislation, the Anangu custodians informed tourists that climbing Uluru violates their culture and spiritual beliefs. But they did not ban the climb altogether. One reason is that they want visitors to choose not to climb.
As Traditional Owner Kunmanara said:
That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing … You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurrpa[Dreaming law] to say.
And all the tourists will brighten up and say: ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing’.
Fortunately the number of people climbing Uluru has been steadily declining, and the 2010-20 Management Plan for the site now envisions the conditions for phasing out the climb. Uluru serves as a litmus test in some ways for Australia’s journey to reconciliation.
Australia’s Indigenous tourism sector is struggling
Statistics for Australia’s Indigenous tourism niche are hard to find but suggest a decline since the heady dates following the 2000 Olympics and the peak of the Reconciliation movement.
A snapshot of this niche provided by Tourism Research Australia’s International Visitor and National Visitor Surveys showed that in the period between 2006 and 2010, there was an 18.7% average annual decline in domestic overnight Indigenous tourism visitors. There was also a 4.9% average annual decline in international Indigenous tourism visitors.
It is a problem in our efforts to build reconciliation that Australians appear not to be taking up the hospitality of their fellow Australians.
The way forward?
Periodic international spotlights on Australia (such as the upcoming Commonwealth Games) mean that reconciliation business cannot be abandoned. Festivals like Garma, native foods presented by Mark Olive, award-winning tourism businesses like Quentin Agius’ Aboriginal Cultural Tours all show efforts to use tourism as a tool to build understanding and thereby contribute to reconciliation.
Importantly, non-Indigenous Australians hold primary responsibility to work towards reconciliation.
If every Australian committed some part of their holiday travel plans to booking an Indigenous tourism experience, we could potentially change this country for the better.
Authors: Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism, University of South Australia