If you need to know how to quickly take the itch out of a swollen mosquito bite or find a crystal-clear, low-risk place to swim in the Daintree, Juan Walker can show you. The proprietor of Walkabout Cultural Adventures has been taking visitors around Kuku Yalanji country in far-north Queensland for almost two decades.
Lately, many of those visitors have discovered Walker’s tours a new way – through Welcome to Country, a marketplace for Indigenous travel experiences. Walker estimates that Welcome to Country, which currently features 400 operators and over 1,000 experiences, is now one of his largest booking referrers. Given the website only officially launched on 2 December, it’s an impressive result.
Since the site soft-launched earlier this year, Walker says, “bookings started to come in straight away”. While Walker’s business is listed through many online travel agents, he has already noticed a difference with Welcome to Country. “They’re really trying to be respectful to the people of the country. When it comes to cultural appropriation, and to protocols, these guys are doing it the right way.”
Rhoda Roberts, head of First Nations at the Sydney Opera House, who sits on the board of Welcome to Country, says this careful approach is critical to their mission. “Really ensuring that there’s authenticity, and the authorship and control from a cultural tourism operation perspective, that brings in all the ecology of who we are as First Nations.”
Highlighting operators – or even allowing them to use their own branding – is atypical for an online travel agency. When browsing through the services that dominate “things to do” bookings, even the name of the organisation you’re booking with will not always be obvious at first glance.
Another point of difference is Welcome to Country’s not-for-profit status. While they still charge operators a 20% fee, which is on the low end of average for an online travel agent (“not much at all,” Walker says), profits will be reinvested in improving the product and into the Indigenous tourism industry more broadly.
At the moment, the sector’s biggest challenge is awareness. Roberts points to findings by Tourism Research Australia which suggest the majority of both domestic and international tourists who are interested in having Indigenous cultural experiences do not know how to access them. “So we realised it was the visibility, and [understanding] of what is cultural tourism? Where can you go to find out?” She says people have preconceived assumptions about cultural tourism, but “we can offer everything from a day spa to being on the beach, or learning about the French history of Western Australia”.
Welcome to Country is backed by venture capitalist Roger Allen’s Indigenous Capital Limited, and the platform’s CEO, Jason Eades, says the platform’s primary purpose is “to deliver jobs and economic benefit to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community”.
Roberts posits that tourism offers other opportunities, too. “I think it’s life-changing on so many different levels that we actually get to show people as hosts, who we are,” she says. “It really helps dispel those negative images and perceptions – we are a very highly intelligent, incredible peoples who are very diverse and have very different opinions.”
To further that conversation, from 2 December through 8 December, the platform will be hosting a series of free online events featuring operators and thought leaders including Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe; athlete Joe Williams; and Professor Marcia Langton, who quite literally authored the book on Indigenous travel, Welcome to Country, published by Hardie Grant in 2018.
“To understand it properly requires the actual experience,” Langton says of what can be gained from cultural tourism. “You can read about it, but unless you’ve been there and done it – been with the traditional owners and the elders, it’s simply a cerebral explanation.
“How many Australians know that there are traditions of Indigenous astronomy?” she asks. “Or that Indigenous Australians know through oral history about the rising of the sea levels 7,000 years ago? Or even something as straightforward as us having arrived here at least 65,000 years ago … With our species being only 300,000 years old, Aboriginal history comprises a fifth of human history … it should be regarded as a treasure. An Australian treasure and a global treasure.”
That understanding of place has implications for the future too, especially when it comes to land management practices. Witnessing undertakings such as cultural burnings, she says, “and all that goes with it, I think, is one of the most wonderful things that an Australian can experience”.
Roberts adds that these experiences are almost a form of “truth-telling”. “When you go and visit a site you’re going to be blown away by the sand dunes, you’re going to see landscapes that you perhaps haven’t looked at in that manner before. But you’re also going to hear about the massacre that occurred on that site,” she says.
“As an Australian it will affect you because that is your land as well. And perhaps it will help shift people to understand the trauma … If you’re living in an urban environment, you’re still on country. It still is unceded, there are a group of people who are connected, whether there’s buildings and cement there, they know what’s on country there. They know the story underground.”
Although Walker’s experience with Welcome to Country so far has been as an operator rather than as a tourist, he’s excited about using the service to travel, too.
“When you go to new places there’s no better way to learn,” he says. “They’ll bring their story, their personal story, and make you feel safer.”
Langton agrees: “So many parts of Australia are in fact beautiful, but dangerous. Traditional owners know how to treat their guests, and how to make them feel safe and behave safely.”