The tourism industry has been brought to a halt by fires, floods and COVID-19 — but Aboriginal operators are still standing.
Three months ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison imposed a ban on international travel. It’s predicted the borders could stay closed until late next year.
While Aboriginal tourism businesses have heavily relied on overseas visitation, those in the industry are determined to survive.
Wandi Wandian man, Matthew Simms, is part of 'Djiriba Waagura,' which means 'two crows'.
The business offers immersive cultural experiences on the South Coast of New South Wales, and Mr Simms said their doors are open to all visitors to country who want to understand more about our history.
"It’s not just a bush track, it’s not just a creek, ya know. It’s special, and it’s got a big story and it’s been here for a long time and we want people to appreciate that because people are a part of our story now.
"It doesn’t matter where you come from – if you’re here walking on this country you share the story of this place and it’s our responsibility to share that with people," Mr Simms said.
Since restrictions have eased, Djiriba Waagura was able to welcome back groups and re-start its bush walks and cultural programs.
On a cool Saturday morning recently, the organisation welcomed travellers from Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Goulburn and the local area.
As the South Coast has battled a financial shutdown over the past few months, it's hoped the domestic market can kick-start the regional economy.
Ngiyampaa and Karulkiyalu man, Nigel Millgate, who co-founded the business, said the Djiriba Waagura business is about doing good for society.
"We want to bring people here and attract them to this community which will in turn boost the economy for everyone," Mr Millgate said.
"It’s more of a way of life. Exactly the same way as our old people operated with corroboree and sharing story, it’s just that now we have to walk two worlds and that’s no fault of our own.
"We’ve got to try and juggle business sense and cultural protocols," Mr Millgate said.
While the worst of the pandemic may be over, some tourism operators around the country were unable to withstand the financial impacts of stagnant business.
Bidjigal/Dharawal man and facilitator Raymond Timbery urged local communities to support Aboriginal tourism businesses to ensure knowledge sharing can continue.
"You need strong men and women passionate, driven and being able to interpret our culture in a way that is understandable to everybody cause it’s not about us and them," Mr Timbery said.
"It’s not about what’s important and what’s not – it’s about coming together."
Adapting to survive
After being in the tourism business for 25 years, Dunghutti/Jerrinja woman and operator, Aunty Margret Campbell, saw her business disappear overnight.
Dreamtime Southern X runs cultural tours in the heart of Sydney on Eora country and had been capitalising on international visitors, cruise ships and the busy city foot traffic.
Aunty Margret said business was doing great before COVID-19 hit and people were engaging with Aboriginal culture.
"It’s a very easy way to learn about how we have managed our ecology, our conservation and certainly our sustainable practices in just an everyday walk about tour – so it’s packed full of all this information in 90 minutes," she said.
"I’ve had to be able to condense it as quickly as I can and I think I do a pretty good job of that."
Following the pandemic, Aunty Margret was forced to reduce her ten person staff down to one: herself.
She since made the decision to take her tourism business online in order to survive and secured a $10,000 grant from the City of Sydney.
The money will be used to create a virtual reality education interactive tour, webinar sessions filled with photos, and cultural storytelling.
Sitting under a big tree next to Sydney Harbour, Aunty Margret explained that whales would be swimming up and down the coast at this time, and she hoped to explain the significance of that online.
"That’s natural evidence of our living culture so I want to be able to put that into a virtual reality – a combination of me walking in the real world and then going in to say, here’s what the whale’s all about, folks," she said.
Despite her personal hardships and the journey ahead for the tourism industry, Aunty Margret expressed her optimism for the future.
"Aboriginal people here in the past have recovered from measles and chickenpox and we had our own version of COVID way, way back when over 200 years ago that was all released here intentionally on us," she said, "so we survive pretty good as Aboriginal Australians."