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How Travelers Can Support Aboriginal Tourism in Australia

Paying Respect to a Unique Indigenous Tradition of Dreamtime

Uluru, also know as Ayers Rock, is sacred to many local Aborigine people in Australia
Uluru, also know as Ayers Rock, is a large sandstone formation that is sacred to many local Aborigine people. To be a responsible visitor, observing rather than climbing the rocks are the most respectful way to visit.

At the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Aboriginal culture went on show for the world. Aboriginal dancers and storytellers, with their painted bodies and unique movements told the story of the creation of their land, a story passed on from elders in the beautiful tradition of Dreamtime. Suddenly, Aborigines weren’t just natives that tourists might happen across in the outback. Suddenly Aboriginal tourism was big business. And just as suddenly, there emerged yet another way in which Aborigines could be exploited and abused.

“Aboriginal” tours and stores selling didgeridoos and dot paintings sprung up, many with only loose ties to any Aboriginal communities and some with none at all. Well-intentioned travelers found it near impossible to know if they were participating in activities that were offensive and harmful to indigenous communities, or if they were supporting them. The good news is that, increasingly, the Australian Aboriginal community, with the help of some government bodies and nonprofit organizations, is attempting to take control of Aboriginal cultural tourism. Ethical travelers can support Aboriginal tourism, but it takes understanding the issues surrounding the exploitation of Aborigines, knowing which travel outfits to trust, and learning how to respectfully interact with the people.

A History of Abuse

When the British first arrived in Australia over 200 years ago they considered that the country belonged to no one and claimed it as a colony of Great Britain.

Following white settlement, the issue of Aboriginal land rights was not an issue until 1992 when the High Court of Australia deemed that Aborigines on the Torres Straights (situated between Australia and Indonesia) had a right to the land they had inhabited for generations, and the government was forced to pass the Native Title Act.

Up until the 1970s Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents without judicial process. Around 100,000 children were “stolen.” Some were raised in institutions while others were placed with white families. Children were subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and many were told they were orphans.

These days the experience of the Australian Aborigines remains grim, even though statistically there has been some improvement in recent years. Aborigines have an unemployment rate three times that of non-indigenous Australians. They have a disproportionate level of drug and alcohol abuse, and are over-represented in prisons. The infant mortality rate is twice that of non-indigenous babies and the life expectancy is 14-18 percent lower than the non-indigenous population.

Aborigines and the Land

The land rights debate is often framed by white Australia in terms of who owns what. For the Aborigines of Australia, land is not just something that belongs to them, it’s what defines them.

Aborigines believe that the Australian landscape—from the red sand of the country’s center, to rivers, mountain ranges, and rock formations—was created by their ancient ancestors. They value the land as they would value a grandparent or other ancestor. Destruction of the land is akin to the death of a family member. Tourists traipsing through sacred land are akin to the rape of a family member.

The Importance of Aboriginal Tourism

As the issue of land rights gains popular appeal, a lot of debate is being given to what bureaucrats call the question of “appropriate economies.” Once Aborigines get their land back—or at least some management rights—what should they do with it? How can they make it economically viable, while preserving their culture and environment?

One solution that is almost universally accepted by white and black Australians is the development of an Aboriginal tourist industry. In 1985 Uluru, which until that time had been called Ayers Rock, in Australia’s outback was controversially handed back to its traditional owners, the Anangu people. Before then, climbing “the rock” was seen by travelers as both an achievement and remarkable experience. When they were handed back their land, the Anangu people strongly discouraged people from climbing the rock—and offered an alternative. Now, traditional owners take travelers on guided tours around the rock to view sacred areas and ancient rock paintings and pass on stories about the Dreamtime. Rather than declining as feared, tourism to Uluru has never been better. Travelers are even boasting about observing the cultural boundaries.

Tours versus Independent Travel

It is strongly advisable that travelers visit outback and Aboriginal sacred sites with an ethical tour. The following directory provided by Tourism Australia provides a list of providers who pop up daily, so you would do well to carefully research each organization to determine a tourism operator with the best possible reputation and ethical practices. Ideally, you will be supporting local Aboriginal communities, and you can be assured that your presence will do less to breach cultural protocols or cause distress to the indigenous people. One such example is the Brambuk the National Park & Cultural Centre, where ownership "is shared between five Aboriginal communities with historic links to the Gariwerd-Grampians ranges and the surrounding plains."

Tips for Travelers to Aboriginal Australian Lands

  • When visiting aboriginal land or participating in Aboriginal tours, it’s important to remember that indigenous life differs significantly in some areas from non-indigenous Australians and to be very sensitive to such differences.

  • Some sacred sites are off limits to women and others to men, and some sites are not able to be accessed at certain times. It is always advisable to seek permission from the indigenous communities before entering an area.

  • Tour times and dates can change or vary without warning for culturally significant occasions like periods of bereavement.

  • Many Aborigines believe photographs capture the souls of their subjects and therefore become distressed when confronted with images of deceased people. Always seek permission before taking photographs of any Aboriginal person.

  • The concept of time as we know it is a new concept to many tribal communities, so be patient and have a flexible itinerary.
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