When tourism came to an abrupt halt in April, Yawuru man Bart Pigram was lost.
His company, Narlijia Tours, was just gearing up for the tourism season in Broome. A wave of cancellations due to coronavirus restrictions made him worried there'd be no tourists this year.
But as restrictions started to ease and Western Australia’s regional borders started to open again, Mr Pigram was glad.
“We work hard on the off season to do things different and to build on our products for the season and then there’s no season so it was really a deflating mood in Broome,” he told NITV News.
“So now I’m just starting to get the cogs working and pushing to get the bookings back up and the availabilities and talking with the people I work with as well.”
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COVID-19 restrictions, which meant tourists weren’t able to travel to Australia and locals couldn’t travel interstate or even regionally, came at a cost to Indigenous tourism businesses across the country.
In December, a new online ‘marketplace’ for Indigenous tourism businesses in the Northern Territory launched, showcasing the experiences on offer for tourists in the Top End.
Earlier this year, the marketplace — called ‘Welcome to Country’ — expanded to have a national presence.
But as COVID-19 restrictions loomed, Welcome to Country's CEO Jason Eades knew his business and the operators it showcased would need to do things differently for a while.
“It’s been tough, it’s been a tough few months to lose your core income but our people are resilient, our businesses are resilient and I am confident that people will bounce back out of this,” Mr Eades told NITV News.
“We saw some great pivoting going on, people were changing their product, taking it online.
“If you’ve got that strength behind you, I’m sure that the businesses will come out the other side of that.
“Now is the time for us all to come together as a whole industry and [think about] what role we all have to play in putting the spotlight onto the industry.
“When we market overseas, Aboriginal product often sits front and centre. When we market domestically, it does not.
“I think there’s a real opportunity to include in our domestic marketing all of these wonderful opportunities for our own people, indeed in our own backyards, to explore.”
'Travelling around our own backyard'
Welcome to Country is launching a series of online experiences as ‘tasters’ for tourists to see what our operators have on offer.
Mr Eades said the first online experience — a yarn with an Elder — was booked out within hours.
He said this thirst for tourism experiences, especially run by Indigenous operators, is promising.
“People just want to get out and see things, it’s great that we’re seeing this hunger and interest for exploring the product. Now is the time for people to start booking it,” he said.
“We’ve got school holidays coming up. With the restrictions that have been lifted, certainly in NSW, people can get out into regional areas and do some of these experiences.”
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Wiradjuri man Mark Saddler, who runs Bundyi Cultural Tours in Wagga Wagga in western NSW, said he’s taken the time during lockdown to make sure he’s ready to reopen bigger and better than ever.
He said now is an opportunity for Australians to connect with Indigenous operators to learn stories of their area that may not have known before.
“I’m just hoping, actually I’m very confident, that the domestic market, the people of Australia will realise it’s still a bit scary to go overseas, so why don’t we do a bit of travelling around in our own backyard,” Mr Saddler said.
“That’s when Aboriginal operators can really get the nuts and bolts and really get inside people because we can take them on journeys in their own areas and we can tell them giilang — stories — that they’ve never heard before and I think that will open up people’s eyes.”
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As restrictions in NSW have eased to allow regional travel, Mr Saddler said he’s also seen a desire for people to get out and about.
“My physical observations here have been a hell of a lot of cars and caravans back on the road again, which is a really good sign,” he said.
Mr Pigram said he has no doubt that Broome and tourism operators in the region will bounce back.
“Broome went through a war attack, we’ve been through the ups and downs of the pearling industry, we've been through a lot of stuff, cyclones and everything else, we’ll get through this one easy,” he said.