1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2004  
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Aboriginal tourism

This article was contributed by Breeze Robertson-Friend on behalf of Aboriginal Tourism Australia.


Aboriginal tourism gives Indigenous people the chance to tell their story in their way, to share cultural insights, traditional practices and contemporary concerns with non-Indigenous Australians and international visitors. Indigenous communities view tourism as a means of both educating others about Indigenous culture, and creating employment and training opportunities at a local level.

Defining Aboriginal tourism

Aboriginal tourism experiences are varied, but a common thread is the inclusion of insights about the cultural knowledge, lifestyle and beliefs of Australia's Indigenous people. Aboriginal tourism goes beyond the lifestyles and traditions of Indigenous people who live on homelands, out-stations and remote communities to include the urban experience of Australia’s Indigenous persons. Rock art tours, politically themed art exhibitions, live theatre and stories from the Dreamtime told around a campfire are all expressions of Indigenous culture.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tourism Industry Strategy defines Indigenous tourism as including all forms of participation by Indigenous persons in tourism:
  • as employers
  • as employees
  • as investors
  • as joint venture partners
  • providing Indigenous cultural tourism products
  • providing mainstream tourism products.

The Australian Tourist Commission has defined Aboriginal tourism for marketing purposes as 'a tourism experience or service, which is majority owned or operated by Aboriginal people and/or owned or operated in partnership with non-Aboriginal people'. However, focusing on ownership alone tends to restrict inclusion in this diverse category of tourism products. For example, in New South Wales only 39 of 250 Aboriginal tour operations were Aboriginal-owned in 2001.

The Aboriginal Tourism Australia (ATA) is a non-profit company established in 1995 following a recommendation of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tourism Industry Strategy and national meetings of Indigenous operators. It provides leadership and a focus for the development of Aboriginal tourism, consistent with Aboriginal economic, cultural and environmental values. ATA has adopted a broader description of Aboriginal tourism which encompasses four distinct but related elements. Aboriginal tourism is:
  • concerned with cultural and biological diversity
  • asserts prior informed participation of all stakeholders, and active decision-making processes accorded to Indigenous and local communities
  • recognises Indigenous persons’ special connection to land and waters
  • recognises customary proprietary knowledge held on a community and individual basis.

In Aboriginal culture the significance of land is intimately bound in the spirituality surrounding the origins of landscapes, animals, plants and people. Traditional owners, or custodians, have a responsibility to look after the environmental, cultural and spiritual wellbeing of the land. This unique relationship and respect for the land is increasingly attracting visitors seeking to ‘touch the earth’.

Another key element of Aboriginal tourism is cultural control, considered crucial to maintaining authenticity and preventing cultural exploitation and cultural appropriation. Intellectual and cultural property rights, along with copyright issues, are of particular concern to Indigenous Australians.

Authenticity is important to international visitors. ATA makes the distinction between ‘authenticity’ and ‘authenticated products’ where the key components are the source of the material and approval given by the appropriate custodian for that material to be shared. This means an Indigenous person from another area, or in some cases a non-Indigenous person, can be authorised to speak about local culture within specific cultural boundaries.

The close affinity between tourism products and culture demands flexibility, which sometimes challenges traditional tourism norms. Cultural laws and practices both define and influence Aboriginal tourism. Permits may be needed to enter some areas and roads may be closed at short notice - even access to the iconic Uluru has been temporarily revoked for ceremonies.

Recent developments

Market research has recently assessed awareness of Aboriginal tourism among overseas visitors to Australia. Europe, led by Germany, has emerged as the strongest market for Aboriginal tourism. German tourists are the most likely to travel to the Australian outback. While 35% of German tourists made a trip to the outback, only 5% of Japanese tourists visited the outback in 1999-2000. About 80% of German tourists ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that Australia offered very interesting cultural experiences. Visitors from European countries generally indicated a high level of interest and knowledge about Indigenous culture. In a recent survey of potential Chinese visitors, 39% expressed interest in Indigenous cultural products.

Significantly, 37% of international visitors expressing ‘high’ or ‘medium’ interest in Aboriginal tourism left Australia without participating in an Aboriginal tourism experience, according to the Survey of Indigenous Tourism 2000. The report, which focuses on expectations of Aboriginal tourism experiences, satisfaction, conversion and identifying target markets, notes that reasons for this include time constraints and inability to find the appropriate information.

An industry priority has been the development of guidelines for the accreditation of Aboriginal tourism operators. After two years of consultation with Indigenous communities, industry stakeholders and tourism operators, ATA has recently developed an accreditation program Respecting Our Culture.

Elements of the accreditation program include:
  • business management - developing sound business practices, risk management and professionalism
  • cultural protocols - protecting cultural integrity and authentication at a local level
  • sustainable environmental practices - ‘Caring for Country’ incorporating principles of minimal environmental impact.

By encouraging businesses to protect Indigenous cultural, social, religious and spiritual values, the program aims to help find a harmonious balance between businesses, Indigenous communities and the environment in the overall pursuit of sustainability.


Aboriginal Tourism Australia, <http://www.aboriginaltourism.com.au>

Aboriginal Tourism Marketing Association, <http://www.seeaboriginaltourism.com>

Australian Tourist Commission, <http://tourism.australia.com/>

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report), published by Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage.

Brand Audit Research 2001, Market Research Intelligence on Aboriginal Tourism, Australian Tourist Commission, prepared by Market Insights 2002.

Respecting Our Culture, <http://www.rocprogram.com>

Survey of Indigenous Tourism: Final Report March 2000, sponsored by the Department of Industry, Science and Resources and State and Territory Tourist Commissions.

'Tourism Industry strategy; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and Office of National Tourism, 1997', quoted in Survey of Indigenous Tourism: Final Report March 2000, Department of Industry, Science and Resources and State Tourist boards.

Western Australia Indigenous Tourism Committee, <http://www.waitoc.com>.