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Can Indigenous Tourism Help Australia Rebound from Backpacker Crisis?

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A recent article featured on both eTravelBlackboard and the Daily Telegraph chronicles a worrying decline in Australia’s backpacker tourism industry that has tour operators and hostel owners struggling to survive as young travelers eschew the once thriving Australian backpacker scene for other regions.

Figures from Tourism Research Australia depict a seven percent drop in hostel stays over the past two years, and a decline in the backpacker population in every Australian state since March 2011.  Troublesome weather, government regulations, exchange rates, and increased competition from Asian countries are being blamed for the backpacking industry’s worst market in over 20 years.

“Tour companies are dying – we are 40 per cent down over the last three years as there have been less and less arrivals into the country,” Red Earth Safaris’ Terry Ramsay said. “They [the Government] don’t care about the backpacker market. We worry there won’t be any tours soon – it will be interesting to see how many more go under this year.”

Base Backpackers’ Brendan McKenna said “Sydney is very quiet” and “if Sydney is empty it is very worrying.The industry feels overlooked. Backpackers can be viewed badly but they spend a lot of money. The youth market did help pull Australia through the GFC.”

Backpacker Youth Tourism Council chairman Peter Ovenden calls for “new, innovative tours and more marketing help from state governments.”

Meanwhile, The Age is reporting a surge of funding and interest in Australia’s indigenous tourism industry, which is bringing new life to a traditionally “difficult” industry to keep afloat. An influx of regional mining royalties and government grants are helping culturally-oriented operators develop a host of new indigenous tourism operations across the continent. The trips, which either offer indigenous interaction and education with more traditional tourist stays and activities or as the main attraction, have so far proved popular with both international visitors and locals alike.

The Federal Minister for Tourism, Martin Ferguson, described the potential of indigenous tourism as “so far untapped,” saying:

“Indigenous tourism is a large part of what makes Australia unique as a destination. These products and experiences also address important issues, such as the creation of employment and improvement of business skills for indigenous people.”

Grant Hunt, who has been recognized by the Australian Tourism Awards for championing eco, cultural  and indigenous tourism explains that interest in such types of travel have been longstanding in the country, but funding has made all the difference of late:

“Increasingly, indigenous communities are benefiting from mining royalties on their land and they are able to make investments in tourism,” he says. “I think the resources sector has really helped in that regard. It’s broken a lot of the shackles.”

Hunt adds that while indigenous people often enjoy sharing their cultures with visitors, more training in operational and financial matters is needed, as is the genuine re-building of communities that have fled to away to cities:

“We could do some window dressing [by bringing in Aboriginal faces from outside the area] but that’s not sustainable,” he says. “We need to be patient and set the structures up right.”

One wonders when reading these articles side-by-side if the creation of quality and sustainable indigenous tour operations should be considered as the key innovation to renew the much-needed backpacker population, or even come to replace it in time.



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