A contemporary Welcome to Country?

The recent listing of Budj Bim near Portland in Victoria’s south-west as a UNESCO world heritage site is an important milestone for a range of reasons, writes Stu Speirs.

Stu Speirs

The listing continues to build on our understanding of Australia’s Indigenous culture, and in this case, brings to prominence the fact that Gunditjmara people were not only sophisticated farmers, but also lived settled, relatively stationary lives. That idea alone, that not all Indigenous Australians were nomadic, will be news to many.

What this also highlights is just how starkly different the practices and culture of each Indigenous nation were. Those differences between nations brings us to the welcome to, and acknowledgement of country ceremonies. In modern day Australia, these ceremonies are generally seen as a way to pay respect to Indigenous history. Whilst that is true, seeing welcome to, and acknowledgement of country ceremonies through that lens alone ignores their origin.

At their core, they are a critical mechanism for fostering understanding between different communities. Prior to white settlement, it is understood that sometimes months of negotiation would need to occur before a nation’s elders would permit the safe passage of another nation’s people on to their land.

So understandably, when an agreement was reached, a celebration was warranted. In a sense, a Welcome to Country, and the responding Acknowledgement of Country, was a celebration of two different cultures coming together and understanding each other better than they had before.

In today’s world, where tourism can be a key plank of a community’s economic well-being, over-tourism may be seen as a good problem to have. But ask the residents of Barcelona and Noosa what they think of tourism, and their response may make you think again.

So, what can we learn from the position that places like Barcelona and Noosa find themselves in today? Melbourne-based Jetstar’s marketing of Noosa to Melbournians, or Ireland-based Ryanair’s of Barcelona to Europeans are initiatives that are, by definition, driven by outsiders to the communities affected.

What if the marketing of a destination was left primarily in the hands of locals? Leaving locals to drive visitation to their own communities would likely go a long way to ensuring visitation growth is at a rate that the locals are comfortable with.

For communities that want to encourage tourism, what are the triggers that can provide the excuse for someone to extend an invitation to an outsider to visit? This is where events can play a vital role. Community-led events that showcase a place’s personality and culture are the ideal platform for encouraging locally driven visitation.

Taking the learnings of what lies at the heart of a Welcome to Country, perhaps genuinely long-term sustainable tourism is best done by providing our communities with events that are rooted in place, and in turn give locals a reason to extend a welcoming hand to outsiders. Who knows, framing tourism in this way may even lead to visitors arriving with a sense of respect they often lack in today’s consumer-driven world.

Stu Speirs is Government News’ Tourism and Events contributor and the Program Director of the inaugural Place Branding Australia conference.

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