By ERWIN CHLANDA
More than 17 million tourists visiting Northern Australia in 2014/15 and spending 10 billion dollars is a fact that could be expected to send the pulse rate up a notch or two.
But despite its stirring title, “Northern Horizons – Unleashing Our Tourism Potential”, the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia report, at least judging by its chapter six, is short on excitement, specific initiatives and detail that could further crank up the industry.
Member for Lingiari Warren Snowdon is the deputy chairman of the 10-person committee, and NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy a member.
But the chapter, called “Tourism Experiences in Northern Australia,” mentions Alice Springs twice in its text of 16,829 words, Kakadu 16 times, Uluru, 18 and the MacDonnell Ranges not at all.
“In November 2017, the Board of Management announced that climbing up Uluru would no longer be allowed, a decision which was welcomed by the Committee,” says its report, relying on three references from Parks Australia and one from the Department of the Environment, announcing closure of the climb.
It “presents an opportunity to create new and authentic cultural tourism experiences … and other tourism attractions that have the agreement and involvement of traditional owners.
“While temporary, the Field of Light exhibition is one example of a tourism attraction at Uluru that is already drawing increased visitation.”
No other suggestion is made.
The report says films such as Crocodile Dundee, Australia, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have been showcasing Northern Australia and “could present northern destinations to a massive domestic and potentially international audience, far beyond the reach of any individual marketing campaign”.
These films were produced in 1986, 2008 and 1994 respectively. Their major impact has surely already been achieved (although Priscilla in particular will get renewed attention on its 25th anniversary next year).
How should further such movie making be stimulated? No suggestions are made.
The committee recommends public funding of a peak body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism operators that should “work with Tourism Australia and state and territory tourism bodies to develop a strategy for the development of cultural tourism in Northern Australia”.
The committee, chaired by Warren Entsch, does not say what that strategy should include, nor why the needs of Indigenous operators could not be met by Tourism Australia and the existing state bodies.
The committee recommends that Tourism Australia work in partnership with the Queensland, NT, WA and Indian Ocean Territories tourism organisations to “identify opportunities to work in partnership, particularly for the marketing of tourist destinations that cross state and territory borders” and “establish a new, specific and ongoing Northern Australia marketing policy and campaign to increase international awareness, including in Asian visitor markets, of Northern Australian tourism destinations and attractions”.
It would seem that – surprisingly – government tourism organisations are not doing this at present. Why not?
As a practical initiative the report quotes Professor Ross Dowling’s suggestion of establishing geoparks in Northern Australia.
“Unlike a national park, the government doesn’t have to buy land or sea. You just put an artificial boundary around an area of interesting geology, and then you start,” Prof Dowling is quoted.
“I’ve seen these work all over the world, but they’re just not here … There are a number of communities in Australia that want it. But there is very little support.”
Kakadu National Park is effectively open for three months of the year, says the report.
“The major attractions are limited by the wet [season] and by the fact that the roads … go under water for most of the year.
“‘The solution to that is to improve the road infrastructure so the sites can be accessed for a wider window.”
However, Parks Australia “advised that there is division among traditional owners and other stakeholders as to whether to extend the tourist season in Kakadu National Park, which has made development a challenging exercise”.
About the National Indigenous Cultural Centre in Alice Springs, Tourism Central Australia (TCA) is quoted as saying that the centre “has the potential to be the biggest tourism game changer the outback has ever seen”.
The government’s National Aboriginal Art Gallery does not seem to be mentioned.
TCA recommended all states and territories support the Cultural Centre project as it will “attract people from all over the world and will act as a feeder to other Australian Indigenous heritage destinations,” the report says.
It says the importance of mentoring was illustrated by the Alice Springs Desert Park, focussing on reinforcing Aboriginal culture which had led to a “high retention rate of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff”.
The report – unnecessarily – states the obvious : “While there are challenges associated with developing the tourism industry in Northern Australia, there are also significant opportunities that, with commitment and investment, can enable the tourism industry to reach its full potential.
“Tourism may also serve as an additional source of employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in regional and remote areas.
“Improving tourist infrastructure within national parks and facilitating private investment can stimulate the development of ecotourism.”
The report says the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC) stated that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism was “a key point of difference for attracting people to the north”.
The NT Department of Tourism and Culture agreed, the report says, and stated that “demand has been growing each year for Indigenous experiences in the NT and in Northern Australia”.
WAITOC is quoted as saying tourism “allows Aboriginal people to contribute unique products to markets while still maintaining and valuing the Aboriginal cultural heritage of individuals, communities and language groups”.
Despite this potential, the Office of Northern Australia stated that there appeared to be a lack of support for Indigenous tourism businesses that wish to develop, and that challenges for Indigenous businesses included remoteness, infrastructure, cost of travel and workforce capacity.
The Kimberley Land Council advised that it was very difficult for Indigenous groups to access funding through Indigenous Business Australia or the Indigenous Land Corporation.
Kakadu Tourism stated that the Indigenous [Training] Academy in Uluru has had a profound impact on Indigenous engagement and participation in Uluru.
As such, Kakadu Tourism considered there was an opportunity to establish an Indigenous training academy in Jabiru, the town closest to Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu Tourism advised that this was especially important given that the mine related work at Jabiru is set to cease in 2021, says the report.
Grey nomads and self-drivers were described as the bread and butter of tourism in the remote areas of Northern Australia.
Of the 41,000 visitors to Longreach in the last calendar year, for example, 80% to 85% were grey nomads.
PHOTOS (from top): Grey Nomad Facebook • Serpentine Gorge (Alice Sprigs News Online) • Kakadu by Felipe Rocha.