The fee charged by Wunambal Gaambera helps fund cultural performances for tourists. (Supplied: Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation )
A West Australian tourism body is calling for urgent intervention to minimise the access fees being charged by Aboriginal groups in Australia’s north, saying operators are facing multiple payments to native title holders along the coast.
- One Aboriginal corporation is charging coastal access fees in the Kimberley, but a second group is planning its own charges next year
- The combined charges are set to double to at least $180 per person, and operators are concerned more groups could impose fees
- Cruise operators are lobbying the WA Government to broker a single-permit system on the popular Broome-to-Darwin route
Native title holders are increasingly flexing their legal right to manage access to their land, with most tourism operators saying they are happy to comply and contribute a payment.
But the Kimberley Marine Tourism Association is lobbying the WA Government to help broker a single-permit system, so passengers travelling the popular Broome-to-Darwin route only make one payment.
Chad Avenell says businesses are keen to support Aboriginal corporations but need certainty around planned price increases. (ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke )
President Chad Avenell said it would ensure funds were distributed evenly among native title groups, while also ensuring increasing costs did not deter tourists or become unsustainable.
“A lot of this has been really positive because it is creating jobs and value-adding,” Mr Avenell said.
“It’s great to have traditional owners getting back on country and explaining the cultural significance of places to tourists, which we haven’t had in years gone by.
“But the concern for operators is that, okay, we have one group charging at the moment, but if we get three or four groups charging a similar fee and increasing it, then eventually it’ll get to the point that tourists think it’s too much money.
“I would hate to think that we have to learn a painful lesson.”
Currently, only the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation is charging coastal access fees, but the ABC has confirmed a second group, Dambimangari, is planning to start charging fees in 2020.
Dambimangari Chairman Francis Woolagoodja said the visitor permit — expected to be set at $90 per person, similar to the existing Wunumbal Gaambera fee — will be discussed with tour operators early in the new year.
“All we can confirm now at this point is that in 2020 Dambimangari will issue their fee structure for the visitors pass with maps attached,” he said.
Sites such as the King George Falls are a popular attraction for a growing number of tourist boats. (Supplied: Oli Oldroyd)
There are additional costs associated with visiting some popular spots on the Dambimangari section of coast that were designated as accessible only with a ‘traditional owner guide’, as per the Dambimangari management plan released in 2017.
It means that rock art sites like Raft Point can only be viewed if escorted by an authorised Dambimangari tour company.
It appears one Dambimangari family started acting independently at times during the 2019 tourist season, greeting cruise ship passengers as they disembarked at the popular Raft Point beach and charging a cash fee to view the rock art caves.
While there are some tensions over site access and permit costs, there is also excitement about what the monetisation of native title rights could mean for Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia.
Wunambal Gaambera dancers greet cruise ship tourists on the far north Kimberley coast. (Supplied: Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation)
The Wunambal Gaambera permit system has been in place since 2017, with both, local families and tourism operators, declaring it a success.
Land visitors — such as those driving to the Mitchell Falls (Ngauwudu) or visiting on a tour bus — pay a one-off fee of $40, in line with the what native title holders have been charging at popular Northern Territory sites for more than a decade.
Those visiting by boat, either privately or on a cruise ship, pay between $90 and $105 each.
Catherine Goonack said the money had enabled the hiring of more rangers out on country. (ABC News: Erin Parke)
In 2019, more than 16,000 people paid for a permit. The money was invested back into training, jobs and infrastructure to benefit local Aboriginal people as well as tourists.
Wunambal Gaambera chairwoman Catherine Goonack said the income had made a big difference.
“It’s gone really good, because the tourists like to see Aboriginal people on their own land, to be there and talk about their culture,” she said.
“It’s good to have our own money to support ourselves more, so that we can do more projects and hire more rangers out on country.”
Wunambal Gaambera has locked in the fee structure for cruise companies through to 2027, to help give them certainty.
The corporation said it was ready to work with neighbouring Aboriginal groups to try to work out a single-permit system, but that was yet to happen.
Appeals for government intervention
The issue of Aboriginal access fees has been repeatedly raised in State Parliament, with Opposition MP Libby Mettam twice appealing to the Government to intervene — first in August 2017, and again in June 2018.
In the second grievance, she outlined the concerns being raised by small, WA-owned cruise boat companies.
Much of the Kimberley coast is accessible only by boat or helicopter. (Supplied: The Great Escape Charter Company)
“There is a legitimate and significant concern that the implementation of a number of these types of fees is unsustainable, particularly for smaller operators, and has the potential to stifle development of this world-class experience,” Ms Mettam told the Lower House.
“Operators have also spoken of their frustration at the lack of support, guidance and intervention from the State Government to resolve the issue.”
Tourism Minister Paul Papalia hopes native title groups and tourism operators can negotiate an agreement. (ABC News: Eliza Laschon)
In response, Tourism Minister Paul Papalia said negotiations took place but ended in January this year without resolution.
“It is a complex and challenging environment, and was never going to be resolved in a rapid fashion,” he said.
The WA Government subsequently hosted a meeting in Broome, to bring together native title groups and businesses owners, but that too appeared to have ended without resolution.
In a statement in December, the State Government seemed keen to take a step back from the issue.
Tourists travel from around the world to go on small-group cruises of the Kimberley coast. (Supplied: Oli Oldroyd)
“The Government does not have any regulatory authority over native title grounds, but has sought to encourage dialogue between native title groups and tourism operators,” the statement read.
“The Government is generally positive about a regional north Kimberley permit system, and we understand that details about fee structure and administration of such a system are being discussed between the traditional land owners and relevant tourism operators.
“The Government may consider becoming involved in formalising such an arrangement if requested by the parties.”
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