• Djabugay woman Shirley Hollingsworth has become the first Traditional Owner to take on the general manager role at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. (Supplied - Liz Inglis Media )Source: Supplied - Liz Inglis Media
One of the country's largest and most successful Indigenous tourism ventures has appointed a Traditional Owner as its general manager for the first time.
Ella Archibald-Binge

24 May 2018 - 11:33 AM  UPDATED 24 May 2018 - 11:33 AM

Shirley Hollingsworth, a Djabugay descendant from the Buluwai clan, says she's "humbled" to take the reins at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns.

The promotion comes more than two decades after Ms Hollingsworth began working at the park as a junior retail assistant in 1997. While studying retail and management, she worked her way up through various roles and has been employed as deputy general manager since July 2017.

Ms Hollingsworth says she draws inspiration from the Djabugay Elders who helped launch the cultural park in 1987. 

"It was their resilience, vision, wisdom, knowledge, honesty, integrity and guidance that encouraged me by saying it's okay to be Aboriginal and to be proud of who we are as a people," she says.

“Djabugay people have been the backbone of this business and it has helped preserve their connection to country, identity, language and culture in an evolving world.

“Working at Tjapukai gives you the opportunity to be proud of who you are. I feel I have a responsibility to ensure we maintain this so Tjapukai is still around for future generations and continuing what our Elders started."

Located on the outskirts of Cairns, Tjapukai attracts more than 80,000 visitors each year, providing a window into the culture of the Djabugay from tropical north Queensland.

Seventy per cent of the park's 63 employees are Indigenous, and half of the Indigenous staff identify as Djabugay.

In 2016-17, Tjapukai injected $4.3 million into the local Indigenous community through wages, royalties and the commissioning of artworks.

Ms Hollingsworth has described the daily operation of the park as "reconciliation in action".

“It is very important to understand and maintain the balance between business and culture to keep our mob engaged. We also consult with Buda:Dji who were originally our Elders, and are the commercial arm of the Djabugay Tribal Aboriginal Corporation, to ensure we are meeting our cultural requirements," she says.

“Tjapukai has been a leader in many areas including Indigenous tourism, reconciliation in action, and in providing employment opportunities for our workers and youth to gain new skills."

Originally established as a performance venue, the venture began in 1987 when a group of non-Indigenous theatre-lovers teamed up with Djabugay performers who used to busk on the streets of Kuranda.

Three decades on, Tjapukai has attracted more than three million tourists from across Australia and the world, helping to establish cultural tourism as one of the region's booming industries.

The park is currently owned by Indigenous Business Australia, with the aim to hand ownership to traditional custodians.

From cautious experiment to booming industry: How cultural tourism made its mark in Cairns
In 1980s Queensland, race relations were fraught. First Nations people were just breaking free from the state's oppressive Aborigines Protection Act, tension was building around deaths in custody, and the land rights movement was gaining momentum. It was in this political climate that a new cultural tourism venture opened its doors.