• Tjapukai has closed, leaving Traditional Owners and staff devastated. (Tjapukai)Source: Tjapukai
Djabugay Traditional Owners say the announcement that Tjapukai Cultural Park will close was 'poorly handled' and undertaken with a lack of regard for the community.
Keira Jenkins

8 Jan 2021 - 6:00 PM  UPDATED 8 Jan 2021 - 6:00 PM

Tjapukai Cultural Park has been operating in Far North Queensland for more than 30 years but has been closed d since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, in a move that has left former staff, co-founders and the community 'devastated', the board of directors has announced it will not re-open. 

Co-founder David Hudson told NITV News that when he heard the announcement, it was like his heart was torn.

"It was gut-wrenching," he said.

"I was very disheartened, very saddened by that news."

In a statement announcing the closure, Tjapukai director Cronje Wolvaardt said the decision wasn't made 'lightly or quickly'.

"We have been seeing declining patronage for many years. Tjapukai has considered various options to continue to revitalise and grow the operations, however the business has continued to remain marginal in the face of a challenging tourism market," he said.

"COVID-19 has compounded these economic challenges, as it has for many industries and sectors."

"We are proud of the history of Tjapukai, which is seen as an icon of Indigenous tourism in Far North Queensland and has contributed so much to the sector."

'Lack of regard for Traditional Owners'

The closure has been slammed by Traditional Owners, who say the announcement was poorly handled, and is 'symptomatic of the lack of regard for and engagement with Djabugay Traditional Owners'.

William Duffin, the chairperson of Buda-dji, which owns half of the land where Tjapukai is situated, said Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) owns the park, and needs to be held accountable for the handling of its closure.

"During IBA's 12 years of ownership at Tjapukai, they have failed to build capacity, achieve financial sustainability or maintain their assets," he said.

"Furthermore, they have blatantly disregarded our Cultural Coordination Agreement and failed to consult with Traditional Owners, achieve employment targets and present Djabugay culture with integrity.

"But we believed there was a solution ahead.

"Covid was an opportunity for IBA to transition the business, to pivot the product and framework, yet IBA have chosen to use Covid as a cover to close the business without even allowing us to speak with staff about our future plans."

Dennis Hunter was a dancer at Tjapukai for 20 years. He said the the treatment of staff through the closure has been "appalling".

"The simple fact that IBA chose to make the announcement public before staff had time to meet with their families was a great insult to the cultural legacy and sensitivities of Tjapukai." he said.

Co-founders Don and Judy Freeman told NITV News they also blame IBA's 'mismanagement' for Tjapukai's demise.

"The business lost its sense of creativity," Don Freeman said.

"Tjapukai up until that point was a constantly regenerating creative enterprise and not just in it's presentation on a day to day basis, on every level, in terms with it's relationship with the tourism industry, with the community."

The Freeman's say IBA 'forced' them out of their interests in 2009, and the business went downhill from there.

"We would really hold them to task on the way they managed the operation from that day forward," Judy Freeman said.

"It has annually lost money, the heart and soul of the performances was ripped out of it and I think COVID-19 may have just been the final nail in the coffin."

Ms Freeman said she was devastated by the announcement of Tjapukai's closure after 33 years of business.

"It's like you watch your child grow up over all these years, nurturing it and loving it and see it just destroyed, she said.

'Focus on Tjapukai employees'

In a statement to NITV News, IBA executive director Sean Armistead said their approach was taken to 'ensure the best welfare of Tjapukai's employees'.

"Across the country IBA is committed to respecting and working with communities in the development of a large number of Indigenous tourism investments," he said.

"We are proud of the many successes we have helped to build ... Tjapukai will continue to work with the Traditional Owners regarding the future of the site.

"...The focus is and continues to be on Tjapukai’s employees and supporting them with a comprehensive career transitioning including training, mentoring and job placement."

Mr Hudson, who said he stepped away from Tjapukai in 2009, wants to see the future of the 26 acre block reflect the cultural strength of the park's history.

"I hope that whatever goes there next, it's a place of cultural reverence, we keep that culture alive," he said.

"Not just for Djabugay mob but for the rest of the community, the rest of Australia.

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