Broome tourism operator Bart Pigram has spent a lot of time fishing since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted Australia’s borders.
- Indigenous tourism lost around 80pc of its pre-pandemic revenue when borders were closed
- However, the closure of international borders has seen more interest in Aboriginal tourism from local tourists
- Indigenous Business Australia has provided support to more than 680 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander firms, including $50 million in pandemic assistance
The Yawaru man runs Narlijia cultural tours in the Kimberley town, situated in Western Australia’s far north-west, but business dropped by half as borders were closed because of COVID-19.
To stay afloat, Mr Pigram reduced the type of tours he offered, cutting back to a key visit to Broome’s Mangrove Flats — or Bagul Bagul, in the Yawaru language.
Visitors learn about the teeming native and aquatic life on the mud flats in the World Heritage-listed Roebuck Bay, as well as Dreamtime stories, and hear tales of Broome’s history as a pearling town.
“I’ve just really fine-tuned one product and committed a few more overheads to actually making that product a really frequent product,” he said.
“Safer, more enjoyable, more friendly, more kid-friendly, family-friendly, just to get people to spending those two hours with me in Broome.”
Mr Pigram is a member of the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC), which devised a marketing campaign targeting Western Australians to bring visitors back to areas often dominated by overseas and interstate tourists.
“We saw an influx of people coming into Broome and the Kimberley region,” he said.
Di Below, marketing manager at WAITOC, said that after an initial hit with the closure of international borders Indigenous tourism had rebounded, with cultural self-drive tours, bush food firms and the education sector booming in areas of the country not locked down.
With the steady stream of international visitors cut off, operators have had to pivot to attracting domestic tourists.
And there is a lot of scope to expand, according to a KPMG report from earlier this year.
It found that, in 2019, only 0.8 per cent of domestic overnight visitors participated in an Indigenous tourism experience.
International border closure ‘devastating’
It is a transition many Indigenous tourism operators have been forced to make.
Stella DeCos, director of community and customer experience at federal government agency Indigenous Business Australia, said the closure of international borders had been devastating for the sector.
“In 2019, there was research done that Indigenous tourism bought into Australia around $7 billion,” she noted.
“When you consider that all international tourism stopped, that would have been a significant impact, I would say up to 80 per cent.”
For firms struggling to survive there has been a $50 million support package, which is in addition to general state and federal government COVID relief payments.
Indigenous Business Australia has provided support to more than 680 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander firms, including $21.5 million in working capital assistance through the pandemic.
Ms Decos said some Indigenous tourism firms had gone into hibernation or pivoted to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are a few businesses that have closed,” she said.
Indigenous art sales hit
Indigenous artists have also taken a hit from the closure of international borders.
Christina Davidson, the chief executive of the Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley Artists Aboriginal Corporation (ANKA), said art sales fell just over 8 per cent from July to December last year.
Ms Davison said there was also a fall in the average number of artists at each art centre and works produced, which also had a big economic impact on Aboriginal communities.
“Given the levels of poverty that there are in remote communities, any loss of income can have really dire consequences — some of the big artists in particular are supporting three, four or more families, so when their work goes down there’s economic consequences which are quite considerable,” she said.
With a majority of their customers unable to visit galleries in person, art centres and galleries have switched to selling paintings online to foreign buyers.
As a result, sales have rebounded and are now at their highest level since the peak prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, according to Desart, the peak body for Central Australian arts and crafts groups.
Lockdown hits cultural tourism in NSW
But Indigenous tour operators cannot pivot to online sales and, for those in locked down states, the past few months have been tough.
Before this year’s long NSW lockdown, Laurie Bimson ran Aboriginal cultural tours at the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney’s north.
Every year, he took hundreds of tourists and schoolchildren to visit sacred sites, including ancient rock carvings.
However, Mr Bimson said the pandemic had cost him tens of thousands of dollars.
“It stopped it in its tracks, stopped dead,” he said.
He had to return to his old job as a welder at the age of 69 to make ends meet.
“My back’s not so good. And my knees aren’t so good. But I just have a day off and take some decent painkillers.”
‘Danger’ if borders open too soon
While tourism and gallery operators are looking forward to the extra business open borders would bring, many are also fearful of COVID being introduced to their communities.
Well known weaving artist and traditional owner Lily Roy, who sits on the ANKA board, is from Milingimbi (Yurrwi) Island in Arnhem Land.
The Walamungu woman is worried that once borders reopen the lives of Aboriginal elders could be at risk because of lower coronavirus vaccination rates among First Nations people.
Ms Roy wants the federal, state and territory governments to prepare a road map for reopening remote Aboriginal communities so that elders can be protected.
“Course there’s danger, unless we wait, the government can give us the time,” she said.
Ms Davidson said the risk to elders from COVID needed to be part of the national debate about reopening borders.
“So the loss of any one elder can be the loss of absolutely irreplaceable, invaluable cultural knowledge.”