Learn how the peak body for Aboriginal tourism in WA is leading the way in sharing the cultures and knowledges of First Nations Peoples.
Learn how the peak body for Aboriginal tourism in WA is leading the way in sharing the cultures and knowledges of First Nations Peoples.
In this episode, Sarah is joined by Robert Taylor, CEO of the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC) and Michael Volgger, Co-Director of the Curtin Tourism Research Cluster. Together, they discuss ways to expand Indigenous cultural tourism in Australia, including looking at the Fitzroy Valley in the Kimberley region as a case study.
Assessing tourism potentials in the Fitzroy Valley
Strong support to protect the the Martuwarra Fitzroy River
Robert Taylor is the CEO of the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council (WAITOC). WAITOC’s goal is to present WA as the leading destination in Australia for authentic Aboriginal tourism experiences.
Prior to WAITOC, Taylor spent 30 years working in the tourism, hospitality, recreation and manufacturing industries in Perth, Margaret River, Busselton, Karratha and Mandurah.
Taylor is of Nhanda Yamiji descent, the Nhanda people being the traditional custodians of the land between Geraldton and the Murchison River in Western Australia’s Midwest region.
Robert Taylor’s LinkedIn profile
Associate Professor Michael Volgger is the Co-Director of the Curtin Tourism Research Cluster, and an Associate Professor and research supervisor within Curtin Business School. He is also an editor for the Advances in Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research series and an associate editor for the Frontiers in Sustainable Tourism journal.
Volgger’s areas of expertise include product development and innovation in tourism, tourism destination governance, sustainable consumer behaviour, and corporate social responsibility in hospitality.
Michael Volgger’s Curtin staff profile
Michael Volgger’s LinkedIn profile
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Read the transcript.
Host: Sarah Taillier
Content creators: Daniel Jauk and Zoe Taylor
Prodcuer & Recordist: Annabelle Fouchard
Curtin University acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which Curtin Perth is located, the Whadjuk people of the Nyungar Nation, and on Curtin Kalgoorlie, the Wongutha people of the North-Eastern Goldfields; and the First Nations peoples on all Curtin locations.
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Sarah Taillier (00:00):
This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.
Kaya, I'm Sarah Taillier, and on behalf of The Future Of team, I'd like to begin today's episode by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Whadjuk people of the Nyungar nation, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging. Going back more than 60,000 years, Aboriginal Australians belonged to the world's oldest recorded civilization, with diversity in cultures, communities, and languages. Cultural tourism represents a way for Aboriginal Australians to share their customs with outsiders and gain financial benefits, but at what cost?
To talk about this topic, in this episode, I was joined by Robert Taylor, the CEO of the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council or WAITOC, and Associate Professor Michael Volgger, Co-director of the Curtin Tourism Research Cluster. We chatted about Indigenous cultural tourism in Australia today and its likely future, the guests' findings from a recent report published into Indigenous Tourism Opportunities in Western Australia's North, the cultural impact of tourism, and what changes they'd like to see in the industry. If you'd like to find out more about this research, you can visit the links provided in the show notes.
Robert, I'd love to start with you. Can you describe Indigenous cultural tourism in Australia today and how it can evolve in the future?
Robert Taylor (01:39):
Yes. Today it is, I guess, I'd say that its infancy still. A lot of states don't have obviously a WAITOC, which are...we're the peak Aboriginal tourism organisation for WA. Some of them are just kicking those sorts of things off, like New South Wales in 2012 formed an organisation. Queensland did this year and we've been helping them lead that. And I think once they get their organisations running, then their states will increase in capacity building, marketing, et cetera, which probably at the end of the day, our government probably would think, "Well, why would we help them? Because then they're always fighting for the marketing dollar", but we just want to see more Aboriginal people succeed in tourism because it's a way of sharing their culture and keeping it even more alive than it already is.
Sarah Taillier (02:35):
And you mentioned WAITOC leading the charge really in that space. So the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council, was that one of the first of its type in the country?
Robert Taylor (02:46):
Yeah, it was, it is the first. It started in 2002, so this year's our 20th anniversary or 20th birthday. And as we've got our AGM coming up, we're having a bit of a networking function at that to, I've got a little video that we've made of 20 years of the organisation with all the different chairs and board members and a lot of images and things from the past, so it's pretty exciting for us. And we've started off with quite a small budget of A$30,000 to today where we're on between two and 3 million a year. So it's been a huge time, it's taken a long time though.
Sarah Taillier (03:29):
And even in that space over those 20 years, for you, Robert, how much has Indigenous cultural tourism changed?
Robert Taylor (03:37):
Well, I haven't been involved with the WAITOC for 20 years, but it has changed immensely in the fact that the number of Aboriginal tourism businesses to start with, I mean, it started, WAITOC started in the Kimberley where our patrons, Sam Lovell, started Aboriginal tourism. We probably think he's one of the founders of Aboriginal tourism. It's quite a, I guess, stressful situation to start your own business in the first place, but Aboriginal cultural businesses are even tougher because you have to get permissions from all the right people to do your tours. So he actually had to get permission from more than one Aboriginal organisation or community group to do his tourism business.
And that's still the case today. Most of them only have to get one now because of native title, but back then, he came to our last board meeting and he told us the story and how many people he had to go and ask, but they were all supportive of what he did. So yeah, it's fantastic. But it's grown, I mean, in the last, I started as the CEO of WAITOC in 2015 and we had 100 Aboriginal tourism businesses then. We've been running capacity building across the State and we've now got 180 and growing quite rapidly, and nearly doubled in five or six years.
Sarah Taillier (04:55):
Michael, you've recently worked with Robert and other stakeholders in a report that analysed the potential of developing new Indigenous tourism opportunities in the Fitzroy Valley in Western Australia's Kimberley region. What did you discover?
Michael Volgger (05:10):
Yeah, indeed. We did this fascinating work up in Fitzroy. Life in the Fitzroy Valley, it's very much centred around the Fitzroy River or as it is called in one of the local languages, Martuwarra. And so also, the Indigenous interviewees who we talk to, they very much stressed importance of the river for their country. So everything starts and ends actually with the river, and that includes also tourism there. So the study had two components, also it's a consequence of that. So in the first part, we looked at whether it makes sense extending the national park around the river from a tourism point of view. So that there was one part and we did mostly some market research. And in a nutshell, the finding was that extending the national park there does help. There is an increase or the numbers show there would be most likely an increase of around 9% of visitation if the national park is increased, which can translate into A$30 million more tourist expenditure, which can be translated into more than 100 jobs in the area.
So that's one thing, but the other component was also to discuss intensively with Indigenous community members and current tourism operators and what they think about tourism development. And what I found interesting is they stressed very much the benefits of tourism development. They said it has yes, economic benefits, such as obviously job opportunities. And in that, it allows for a so-called Indigenised jobs to emerge. So jobs that Indigenous people like to engage with, that allow people to stay on country, that work on country, that build on traditional skills and ways of life and work views of Indigenous people such as storytelling or locating, tracing food, water, taking people out on country and stuff like that. So they stress this economic benefit, they also very much stress the cultural benefits around it.
Many said that Aboriginal tourism is an opportunity to support reconciliation in Australia. It is an opportunity to bring people together and share cultural views and also educate people about Aboriginal ways of life. And last but not least, and that's once again also linked back to the river, is that if done in the right way, which often means by strong involvement of Aboriginal people as well, then tourism can also support the ecological, the environmental protection of places. And our respondents, they said if we show the white people from the south why we are protective of country, they will understand. If we show them the beauty of the river, we show them the beauty of the landscape, they will be able to understand better.
Sarah Taillier (08:23):
One of the points that you touched on there is reconciliation and the role that this type of tourism could really do in that space. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that, Robert, about the cultural impact of Indigenous tourism. Some commentators see it as a way of helping with reconciliation, as Michael has just flagged there, while others think it's too much of a risk because there's a cultural cost. What do you think?
Robert Taylor (08:51):
No, look, it depends. Some organisations, Aboriginal organisations see it too, having too many tourists tramping around on the country is an issue. But we, as our organisation and a lot of our members that are in tourism think the opposite because the more Aboriginal people out there on country doing tourism products, they can help control the people that drive their $100,000 vehicle, dragging their $100,000 caravan through sand dunes or places where they shouldn't be because they're there. But when they're not there, then they can just go and run riot wherever they want. So look, we believe that it's supporting protecting the country more so than if there's no one out there doing it because the country's already been torn up quite a bit by mining. And I know that in Fitzroy, for example, there was some talk from some of the mining conglomerates around taking water from the river for their cattle farming, which it's a breeding ground for swordfish, which I don't know if a lot of people know that, but they come right into the Fitzroy to breed before they go out.
So taking water out of there is going to probably put a lot of pressure on that as well as a lot of the elders are noticing water holes already reducing out further that are fed by the river as well. So keeping it into a national park would be a great idea because, well, not that it stops mining companies because I know in the Burrup [peninsula] at the moment they're going to open in the national park a fertiliser plant, right in the national park where there's 60,000-year old rock art. So it's a bit of a two-way street sometimes when you look at parks and wildlife in the way of, well, it's not DBCA [Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions] I don't think would approve those things, but the state government do. If something's made a national park, it should be kept a national park rather than put mining in there as well.
Sarah Taillier (10:48):
And I would love to hear your thoughts as well, expanding on that and how ingrained as well is tourism in Indigenous culture when you're thinking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been travelling between each other's nations for millennia?
Robert Taylor (11:07):
Yes. Look, I always guess make a little bit of a joke about Aboriginal tourism and the fact that the colonists came here and it was so good, they never left. So Aboriginal people must be good at tourism. Yeah, look, I think that it's very important that we keep Aboriginal tourism going because it is keeping our culture alive and even the Closing the Gap that the state or the federal government have in place. I mean, I have our businesses' small videos of them talking where we've interviewed them about their business and what they feel is important about Aboriginal tourism and they always say that they're the teachers and that when they're talking to visitors, they're closing the gap personally by teaching them all about their culture. And it is keeping the youth involved in it and learning because originally, it wasn't in the schools. I mean, when I was at school, there was no talk of Aboriginal culture at all.
When it got to my kids who are now 20, when they were in primary school, they were taken out of the class and taught Aboriginal studies and I used to always complain to the school saying "Why don't you teach everyone?" And now, it's in the curriculum so everyone does learn it, which is a huge change and I think it's going that way more so now. I mean we, as WAITOC, started by putting one of our brochures with all the Aboriginal tourism businesses that would like to be involved in incursions or excursions with the schools. We made that brochure up and we put it into all the schools around Australia. So I think there was 48,000 schools or something that went into and that made a huge difference to their businesses as well because in the downtime when there was no visitors, they had school groups coming through as well and or they were going into the school.
Sarah Taillier (12:49):
And so those cultural and economic benefits really shone through in the report that you've both worked on. Michael, with that report, how do you think its recommendations could be applied more broadly?
Michael Volgger (13:03):
Yeah, I mean, realities are different obviously and I think findings need to be tailored to the specific realities, but other aspects are probably can be applied more generally as you suggest. So for example, I think an important point is really that protecting natural areas is key because also in Aboriginal or in particular in Aboriginal world views, the cultural landscape, the spiritual landscape, the natural landscape, they are one and the same if you like. So it's one comprehensive worldview so that it's one cannot be done without the other. If you want to protect culture, if you want to maintain culture, we also need to maintain the country and we need to maintain the ecosystems.
So I think that finding, that supporting national parks' protected areas, that probably can support Aboriginal tourism in a variety of places, I would suggest. It can also motivate I think Aboriginal operators by showing that the government, whoever understands their points of view and understands where they come from. So I think that's an important finding that can be generalised. Another thing that respondents stressed a lot in our study is that we need attraction points in tourism in order for people to stay longer and spend more. So if you have a tourist coming onto your country, you want them to leave some monetary benefit for you. That I think is to some degree, also at or one aspect of tourism, right?
In order for this to happen, you need to have what we call attraction points. An attraction point is more than an attractor. So if you have cultural diversity in a place, then this might be called an attractor and that's an opportunity to do tourism, but in itself, it's not already accessible. A tourist maybe does not know how to book it, does not know who to contact and so on and so forth. So it needs to be transformed into an attraction point. And this can take many forms, it can take in a form of long hiking trails. It can mean museums, it can mean, I don't know, mountain bike trails.
It can mean guided tours, it can mean self-guided tours. It certainly also would mean, in many circumstances, high quality accommodation because this also helps people staying in one place and staying for long and one place. And in many remote areas, this can be an issue because people just travel through. So I think that's also an important consideration from within that the tourism logic and the tourism point of view, which is very important to consider. And I can only congratulate WAITOC on all work they've been doing on that front as well, but also the state government in increasingly supporting this area over the last years and decades.
Sarah Taillier (16:20):
We've been hearing a lot about Fitzroy Valley and the potential that it really has in the Indigenous cultural tourism space, but can you take us there for a moment, Robert? I'd love to get a sense. I haven't been there. And for those who haven't been able to make it, can you describe what some of the attractions are and the beauty of the area?
Robert Taylor (16:40):
Yeah, sure. So it's got some great history. It's got a... I'm trying to remember that. Michael might know the name of the reef that is out of the water there. It used to be a part of, well, the reef system. I can't remember, I don't know whether you know the name of the... It's on the tip of my tongue but I can't remember. I've been through some tours that we have there who talk about it. But yeah, so it's a very old history. It's also got obviously Aboriginal colonisation stories as well through Jandamarra, which was a Aboriginal warrior from the Bunuba people that went through that area as well.
But it's got some great attractions in tour products already. So Mimbi caves is just out of Fitzroy and they've got some great products in the cave. They're talking about some of the history of those caves and where Aboriginal people lived and in at certain times when they moved around during the seasons as well as yeah, there's other cultural products that are operating there. And actually, it's one of the probably few community areas in Fitzroy Crossing where the Aboriginal body corporates own quite a bit of the infrastructure as well.
So they own two properties there being the Fitzroy River Valley Lodge. And then there's another lodge further back that they own as well, as well as I think they even own the shopping centre now as well. So they've starting to buy the town back so to speak and run it themselves, which is fantastic as well. Yeah, so look, it's gotten a lot of potential and a lot of them work with the local visitors centre to look at their bookings because one of the things through our capacity building we've noticed is that a lot of the Aboriginal businesses obviously haven't run businesses before because I mean, you're probably aware of their referendum in 1967 where they couldn't actually own their own business. So that's just out of my lifetime. I'm only two years past that when I was born but it's not that long ago. So a lot of them are still getting used to running and owning a business and understanding how to do that.
So part of our capacity building is teaching them how to do that. And again, WAITOC's advocacy has led to what Michael's just alluding to the state government's support now through that Jina plan that's just been put out. So there's $20 million that was put out a couple of years ago. Everyone thought that WAITOC was getting $20 million because we were so strong in putting the advocacy out there but we actually didn't. So we've got some of the outcomes in there that we were already working on through other funding avenues like the Aboriginal Tourism Academy, but one of the things we have started is an Aboriginal tourism business hub, which is supporting that exact thing, the back end of the businesses. So they understand that they needed to keep their receipts, do their accounting. A lot of them, as I said, there's about 180 businesses in WA that probably 20% of them have online bookings.
And it's one point that Michael just made there as well, is that remotely, it's tough to get the internet, first off. So it's really tough for them to be online bookable and get their itinerary. So that's where we're some, in that area particularly, the visitor centre have taken that roll over. So I've even tried to, we get inquiries through WAITOC book a busload of people on one of the tours and he said "No. Look, you'll need to go to the visitor centre because they take all my bookings", which is a smart move because then, he's just paying them a commission and there's a whole lot of work he doesn't have to do. He can just go out and do his two business, which is what they really enjoy doing.
Sarah Taillier (20:04):
Michael, what can Australia, I mean, you've probably going to circle back to a couple of points that Robert has just made, but what do you think Australia can learn from other countries like New Zealand and Canada that really embrace Indigenous cultural tourism?
Michael Volgger (20:19):
Yeah. Before we look overseas, I think we need to once again stress that Western Australia, and in particular due to WAITOC, has been a benchmark within Australia. I think we should recognise that and it's been really due to the hard work of Robert and his predecessors of making that happen. But having said that, there's obviously other realities, global realities which we can learn from and which might also be considered to be further ahead in some of their engagement with Indigenous tourism. You mentioned New Zealand, so I'm not an expert on the details there and it might be good to also speak to or read the readings of Anna Carr, for example, from the University of Otago, but to get the details. But in my impression, so there are some commonalities with New Zealand for example, what both Western Australia and New Zealand have is this institutionalised representation of Aboriginal tourism operators.
So we have WAITOC, they have New Zealand Maori Tourism, I think it is called. So there is some sort of an organisation which supports them. I also think, and I think it's very strongly emphasised within Anna's reading as I mentioned, writings as I mentioned before, that also in New Zealand and it's the same in Western Australia, at least according to our interviews. Most operators, they don't do their business just because of the business, just for the sake of earning money but also because they want to achieve some social change if we like. So there's often this broader approach. So there are some commonalities if you like, but yeah, in New Zealand, so I think in my perception, and I might be wrong, but it feels like the involvement of Maori values worldviews people, seems to be a bit more generalised when it comes to tourism planning, when it comes to writing tourism strategies, which probably is due to New Zealand having a treaty, right? And Australia there not being a treaty.
But I feel at least Western Australia is making progress towards that. And Robert mentioned the Jina Aboriginal action plan, which is I think is also to some degree, a signal of that. I also feel New Zealand has a bit more diversity in terms of business size, aboriginal business size, aboriginal business governance perhaps as well. So obviously, there are also a lot of small micro-businesses, often owner-operated, but there are also examples of larger corporations, aboriginal corporations being involved in tourism. There is one famous example on the South Island where such an aboriginal corporation actually owns a whole portfolio of tourism businesses. And yeah, that's I feel has some still a bit of a difference to Western Australia and having a multitude of business sizes also has a number of advantages. You can diversify your pricing, you can diversify your products. It's easier to build up startup capital and investment capital to innovate and implement and experiment with new ideas.
So I think that's also something that's interesting to observe. And let me make a last point that comes to mind, which New Zealand has been experimenting with so-called visitor pledges. I think they call it the Tiaki Promise or similar. So these visitor pledges are a form for visitors to promise that they will respect country, that they will look after country, that they respect culture and so on. I'm not sure, I don't know whether there is a lot of... Or whether they work, I've never seen research around that, but I do think it's a really interesting initiative to educate visitors about the importance of cultural values and natural sensitivities. And so there might be an opportunity to experiment for us over here as well.
Sarah Taillier (25:07):
Robert, you were really nodding your head towards the end of what Michael was saying there. What was going through your mind?
Robert Taylor (25:12):
Yeah, so I guess I could probably start from Maori Tourism. New Zealand Maori tourism is a little bit different to WAITOC because it's an actual government organisation opposed to WAITOC's independent. And I think 2018 is when they had the World Indigenous Tourism Summit, which we're hosting here in Perth next year in March, but when I did a presentation there about what way WAITOC does and the way it does its marketing advocacy and capacity building, I stirred up a hornet's nest because Maori Tourism just do marketing and advocacy. They didn't do that capacity building even though as Michael suggested that some of those businesses, like the Tamaki brothers run huge tourism businesses, that wasn't out of the support of a WAITOC or Maori Tourism, they grew that on their own through their native title. One of the things I think to point out there is also the size of New Zealand compared to Australia and even WA.
And I think I did a land mass sum, I think New Zealand fits like 9,000 times into WA alone I think or something in the landmass. And when you look at they've chosen one language for their whole country, that'll never happen in Australia because there's over 300. You could never come to a consensus to do that. So that is something they have obviously a bit of an advantage I guess over Australia. So their cultural values are all being brought into one, which is never going to, as I say, happen in Australia. The other thing Michael was mentioning about the pledge as I know it from... It started in Palau, so the Palau Pledge. So Palau actually, if you arrive, fly into Palau, on your passport, you have to stamp the Palau Pledge. If you don't stamp it as part of the passport, then you can't come in, which is exactly what Michael's saying.
It's about caring for the country and looking after it. And you are pledging that you are not going to leave your rubbish behind, you're going to look after the country when you're there. So it's done actually at the federal level, which will be a huge thing for Australia if we were to go down that travel component, but I think we have looked at it already and starting in the south. So there's a gentleman who started looking at how to put that Palau Pledge into Nyungar country, starting down at Wadandi country, which is Busselton area. So yeah, I've met with him a couple of times. Howard Kerns is his name and he's started working on that now. But the biggest problem is how do we police that because, and in a small country like Palau, you can easily do that. New Zealand, same, you can easily do it because it's a bit smaller, but when you've got a huge country like Australia, it'll be quite difficult to... You'd have to put it at that high level and then try and work it from there because it is a huge place.
Sarah Taillier (27:55):
I also wanted to touch on another point where you were really nodding along to what Michael was making a point about the deeper importance of Indigenous cultural tourism for operators beyond the dollar. What was coming to mind when he was talking about that?
Robert Taylor (28:13):
Yeah. So WAITOC in 2016, 2017 did a research project with Tourism Western Australia around the values of Aboriginal tourism to WA, which helped us of course get the Jina plan off the ground. I mean, well, I might start at the level of the gross return to government. So it's $43.8 million or was back then and I'd say that's when we had 100 businesses, so it's probably increased. We are just about to kick off a new research project on that as well. I think $27.6 million was state revenues and then there was, at the time, there was 339 jobs in Aboriginal tourism. But the three things at the bottom that it really picked up around what it does for the Aboriginal people is it strengthens the pride in their culture, keeps their culture alive and also keeps communities thriving through in some remote areas where they don't have a big city where they can get lots of jobs out of.
They can do cultural tourism because people want to go out on the country and learn about Aboriginal culture, but also how they survived in some of those areas and going and talking to some of those Aboriginal tourism businesses where they will talk about how they survived in a place where you would think you couldn't just by really looking at the country and looking at how they can get food. It's amazing when you go to some of these places, even Broome, I was there two weeks ago on a tour with one of our operators and he started at four o'clock in the morning just driving around the town, looking where the bush food was because obviously, people come and take it. So he knew where it was for his tour at 8:30 and then he come, brings people out and it's just amazing what you can learn when you go on some of those tours.
And even to the point where I think they're undervaluing what they do as well, they're undercharging people and that's part of what WAITOC's there to do as well. Help them understand that you don't have to charge someone $20 for a tour. He was charging I think $140 and people were giving him $50 cash tips. So I said there's two things that tells you, one is you're doing a great job, but the other thing is you're probably underselling yourself if they're willing to give you another $50 on what they've already paid. And I just wanted to probably just touch on a bit of that international stuff that Michael was talking about. Being that we're hosting that World Indigenous Tourism Summit, I'm also the secretary of the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance, so WINTA, which owned that conference as well. And we've just taken over the running of that in Australia as well.
So we've created WINTA in Australia. It was previously in New Zealand, but part of that is there are other organisations that we've learned a lot from like in Canada, in British Columbia, Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia, which have been around since 1990. So they get funded around or they were, when the last time I spoken, $2 million a year every year. It's a bipartisan agreement between whoever gets in the government, whereas here in WA, at least we have to go back every four years and try and keep it, keep the funding going. So there's a lot of difference within the organisations that are around the world, but I think Canada is a real lead in what it does and it has got now a national body as well, which is again separate from like we are separate from the government, unlike Maori Tourism is.
Sarah Taillier (31:46):
We're just going to pause for a quick break, but we'll be back right after this ad.
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Sarah Taillier (32:34):
And we're back. Before the ad, Robert, you were talking about the different framework for Indigenous cultural tourism around the globe, but I want to change tack a little bit. I'd love to know how you both came into working the recurrent roles that you do. Why don't we start with you, Michael?
Michael Volgger (32:52):
Ah, sure. Yeah, I mean, I was raised in northern Italy, Central Europe as part of a family who is wider family, heavily involved into tourism and hotels. So I essentially grew up in hotels, working there, but I was living there partially, but I got to know tourism as an area which nurtured my curiosity into people and into different cultures I would say, which probably led me then to study cultural anthropology. I combined it with a business degree, but my heart was prodding cultural anthropology, which is the study of cultures. There are similarities and differences, right?
I was pretty much focused on African cultures, learned in African language and so on and so forth but always kept an eye a close on tourism. When I finished my studies, then I started working at an Italian research institute focused on tourism regional development. And this work there also allowed me to visit Western Australia for the first time in 2015 at Curtin University, which was a very fascinating visit, both from a institutional point of view but also from a landscape point of view, from a cultural point of view and so on and so forth, which convinced me that this could be a place for me to live.
Anyway, I continued working while I went back to Italy on a number of projects in Western Australia, which ultimately then allowed me to join Curtin as a staff member in 2017. I also became almost right from the beginning and the Co-director of Tourism Research Cluster here at Curtin, which does most of the applied tourism research here, which is, so my involvement with it was probably due to my background in having done this industry orientated research before. And yes, as I was always very fascinated about cultures in general, but also being a member of a German-speaking minority within Italy in particular, I think I was always very fascinated about the diversity and the richness of Aboriginal cultures in Australia and beyond. So also as part of my role as the Co-director of Tourism Research Cluster, I strongly advocated and also implemented a focus on Indigenous tourism in our research.
This is partly because of my background, but I think also because I truly believe that the richness of Australia is also to be found in this diversity of Aboriginal cultures, which is not always appreciated. And in tourism, even more so, the beauty of Australia, the reason to visit for many international visitors who come to Australia is often linked also to having experiences of this Aboriginal cultures in Australia. And it's not just one. As Robert said before, there is a huge diversity of it and I would always remember this argument that actually Australia should be compared to Europe in terms of diversity because there's such a multitude of languages and cultures. It's not just one. So there is huge opportunities in preserving that, in leveraging that better for tourism, but for our society I think. Yeah, that's my journey and how I came here.
Sarah Taillier (36:49):
An interesting one. For you, Robert, how did you move into this space? You've been part of it for a long time and are now wearing many hats.
Robert Taylor (36:59):
Yes, I'll probably only go 30 years back. I won't go 60,000 years, but I started I guess in, well, tourism with my wife. We both ran our own company called Forte Hospitality Property Management, which ran resorts, hotels and also a few mining and construction camps, which is where the money was more so than the hotel has worse luck. Yeah, and then actually, my wife said she found WAITOC on some newsletter. She was a marketing part of our business and I was more the operations and she said, "Look, you should nominate for the board."
So I did that and I got on the board in 2010. I sat on there for two years I think, and then I put my hand up to be the treasurer and then moved into the chair role by 2014. And then the CEO that we had, one of the funny things that I think my current chairman always says that we had to go around the world to get an Aboriginal CEO for WAITOC because we had a Dutch lady who started it back when we only had $30,000 who worked with Tourism WA and then the Kimberleys helped kick that off.
We then had a Maori fellow from New Zealand and we had an Irishman and then finally, we got an Aboriginal person from WA. So it took quite a bit of work to get in there, but I suppose I moved from the chair position, I stepped out of the board and put my hat in the ring to apply for the CEO role because Tourism WA, obviously being they're our main funder, well, they are at the moment, but we are moving into other areas, but they had quite a big say. So as I said, I stepped out of that role and yeah, I ended up getting the role and I've been there since 2015, so nearly seven years next year. So yeah, and I guess it's been quite an interesting ride. We've, as I said, grown the organisation. From when I took over, we had a $300,000 budget. And as I said before, we're nearly up to that $3 million and increasing in the next year or so as well.
Sarah Taillier (39:10):
At the start of this chat, we spoke about the future of Indigenous cultural tourism. We touched on it, but now that we've got a chance to get to know you both a little bit better, what really are your hopes for this space? If you could make some tangible changes and it influence the future, what would they be?
Robert Taylor (39:29):
Yeah. So I already am working on a national organisation, so National Aboriginal Tourism Organisation because there isn't enough Aboriginal tourism in other States. So part of that role is to help the other states get a WAITOC model. As I said, we've already shared our constitution now, our model with other states and two of them have already taken that up, which is fantastic. But I've been in Canberra last week talking at that national level as well, as well as being part of, I'm on the board of the Tourism Council of Western Australia and the CEO of that, being Evan Hall is also the chair of the Australian Indigenous Tourism Council, oh not Indigenous, tourism council as well, the national body. So we are going to be working together to try and get a national voice as well, which then will help grow that because if you look at the marketing that's done around for internationals, and Michael hit it there.
There is tourism research, Australia's research that says 80% of international visitors coming here want an Aboriginal experience, but only around 20% get that. And there's a lot of reasons for that. Some of them are that there isn't enough Aboriginal tourism businesses, but it's more so that there isn't any in places where they come. So if you look at just WA, everyone has to fly into Perth. Previous to when I started as CEO, there was one Aboriginal tourism business in Perth. We now have 12 through the capacity building programme we've been running. One of them is an international award winner or national award winner as well in go cultural Aboriginal tourism experiences.
So the programme really accelerates the businesses to that level and we have to understand that a lot of domestic tourism doesn't visit Aboriginal tourism businesses, so we have to rely on that international market, which of course during Covid, we had to support all our members in keeping their businesses alive through again, going through the schools, going through corporates and getting those sorts of business. But through our marketing arm, keeping the international business interested by doing some of the marketing that we did through into Europe and Asia and America. So just keeping them interested when they can come back as well.
Sarah Taillier (41:46):
And people will listen to this podcast at different times, but if focusing on where we're at right now with people starting to return, with the borders really opening up, does that come with hope for you about the potential for growth as well?
Robert Taylor (42:01):
Definitely in regions. I mean, I believe I was up in the Kimberleys two weeks ago, I think I mentioned before, and they were very busy. So that domestic tourism across borders, they get a lot of people driving their caravans and four drives through there and staying on Aboriginal campgrounds and retreats and doing a lot of their products that way. International visitors, again, as I said, they fly into Perth, they don't have another $2,000 to go up to the Kimberleys and back especially. And Kununurra is actually is one of those areas that really gets a bit of a poor representation from the internationals as well because the flights to get there are so expensive. I think the last time I wanted to travel there for a forum, I couldn't actually go. It was $2,500 return flight plus then you had to obviously get hotels and things.
So obviously, with fuel prices going up or just increased, the flights at the moment are very expensive. And when it's out of reach for internationals when they've already probably paid $5,000 to $10,000 to get to Perth, can they afford to go there? As well as how long they're here for. Unless their plan is to go directly there, they're not going to stay in Perth for a few days and then go there because they don't have the time, they don't have to fly out because you need at least a couple of weeks to stay up there so you can see your way around.
Sarah Taillier (43:23):
For you, Michael, what are your hopes looking ahead for Indigenous cultural tourism?
Michael Volgger (43:29):
Yeah, I would like to make two points here. One is a more generic one as I think tourism is very much embedded into the society. So tourism doesn't happen in a factory or something, it happened in the middle of our societies. So therefore, I believe that if the prosperous positive future for Aboriginal cultural tourism, it's obviously also very much linked to having a positive future for the Aboriginal culture in Australia, or I should say the Aboriginal cultures in Australia. So I think that's a very important point. So protecting the languages, making sure that we don't continue to lose further languages due and naming of places, which is happening to some degree, but probably can be accelerated and so on and so forth. So I think it's to make sure that Aboriginal cultural tourism has a positive future, we also need to make sure that that Aboriginal cultures are respected and valorized within Australia.
I think that's the basis. Flipping that argument on its head, I would also hope that Aboriginal tourism can make a contribution towards that. So that as we discussed earlier, that by showing people the beauty of these cultures and how it is embedded into the landscape and into the country, they will understand. So domestic tourism is actually very important from that point of view. And in addition to that more generic thought, I would like to focus on youth. I would hope that Aboriginal youth can be motivated even more so than today to engage with Aboriginal tourism because we need youth, because we need succession in businesses, we need the energy of youth, we need the creativity of youth. And so it is really important to involve them because it keeps them also off the streets, it makes sure that they do something which is hopefully also beneficial for themselves.
I think there are important steps are being made in that direction. With WAITOC, with the gene Aboriginal plan, there is a lot of capacity building. I've seen an example, for example with cooking workshops, culinary camps being done where Aboriginal people are invited to cook with Aboriginal chefs and see how food is prepared, even perhaps venture out to gather the food first. There are familiarisation tours, which I think is important as well. A familiarisation tour allows people to experience the tourism attraction points, tourism accommodation and tourism as a phenomenon as such because we should never forget that a lot of Aboriginal youth don't have the opportunity to just travel and go on a tour, which results in a situation where they struggle to understand what service expectations might be for tourists. So allowing them to have that experience as being a tourist themselves is really important. So I think my hope would be that we can involve youth even more in Aboriginal tourism activities and hopefully, this can create some positive implications for the situation of Aboriginal people in Australia more broadly.
Sarah Taillier (47:03):
I saw you smile there at the end. Does that ring true for you, Robert?
Robert Taylor (47:07):
Oh, definitely. It's just that we've got to fight against the dollar. I mean, the mining companies offer so much money for people to go and work there. We've nearly lost businesses just because of they do tourism is a vehicle I guess used to get those social returns. The dollars involved, it's more a lifestyle business than it is to make a lot of money. So young people fight against earning the dollars in a mining company. Even though they're against the mining happening, it's still the dollars that they're going after and they can get the money out of it. So it's a bit of a... It's not a good situation, I suppose, for some of those communities where the young people are just going to work in the mines to get the money.
Sarah Taillier (47:55):
Well then what would your words of advice be for anyone hoping to move into that Indigenous cultural tourism space, potential operators about the sense of pride that can really come from that?
Robert Taylor (48:07):
Yeah. I think one of our operators, in fact, he's just stepping off the board this year, he got some young people into his tourism business working as tour guides. And I said to him once, "How did you do that?" Because a lot of them struggle, especially around Fitzroy, there's a gentleman there that has been doing tourism for years. I think Dylan Andrews, I think he's now, he tells a story, he's a direct descendant of Jandamarra's. He tells that story along there and he's been trying to get youth for years, but he loses them every time the season changes because once there's a big gap, then they disappear and do other things and then he has to struggle to get them to come back again.
But I guess Clinton's thing was that he sold the lifestyle. He said, "Do you know that if you want to go fishing, if you want to go mud crabbing, people will pay you to take them to do that." And they were like, "Really?" So all of a sudden, they realise that they can do the fun things they like to do and show people their culture and get paid for it, even though it's not the $250,000 a year, but they can do the fun things, which they wouldn't do if they had to do the $250,000 a year job.
Sarah Taillier (49:14):
Yeah, there's value beyond the dollar, isn't there? Thank you so much, Robert and Michael, for coming in today and sharing your perspectives about Indigenous cultural tourism and its real potential and value in so many ways.
Robert Taylor (49:28):
Michael Volgger (49:29):
Sarah Taillier (49:30):
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