Talking Point: Hotels can support indigenous tourism

A Maori guide describes his cultural history.

An Aboriginal guide describes his cultural history

Responsible tourism writer Jeremy Smith works with hotels and destinations to help them tell their responsible tourism stories. He recently visited Australia and New Zealand and saw the benefits to indigenous communities of encouraging visitors to experience a different side of life.

When encouraging tourists to visit Australia and New Zealand, many hotels, resorts, operators and destinations will conjure familiar images of their indigenous populations; boomerangs, Aboriginal art, didgeridoos, Maori carvings and the Haka. A high percentage of visitors will leave with one of these items or some greenstone jewellery as a souvenir.

But, whilst these associations are central to many people’s perception of the countries, the fact is, very few tourists will experience these communities first hand. According to Tourism Australia, in 2014 only 14% of international tourists took part in some form of Aboriginal experience while visiting the country. One problem is that people associate these experiences with remoteness and inaccessibility.

This July, Tourism Australia launched a short promotional film showcasing a wide range of Aboriginal experiences. To be shown on inbound airplanes, in local hotels, and in cinemas in key source markets, it is designed to counter this commonly held misconception.

It is much needed, for the reality - as I discovered on a visit to both countries earlier this year - is there are plenty of easy opportunities for tourists to engage with indigenous experiences, and some even happen in the heart of their major cities. Not only do such tours give an insight into the traditional lives of Māori and Aboriginal peoples, they often add a new dimension to some of our most familiar tourist sights.

In Sydney, for example, my guide from Dreamtime Southern X explained how the Sydney Opera House was built on land that had for centuries been the site of an Aboriginal shell midden. It had been a place where they discarded the empty shells once they had eaten their contents, and which they then used as a visual guide to how plentiful their food stocks were - an early form of sustainable supply chain management, in other words. When the British arrived, they simply saw a pile of shells, so crushed them up and used them in the construction of the buildings around the Rocks area, and in the foundations for Sydney Harbour Bridge. My guide told me that when she looked at the Opera House's iconic shape, it made her think not of sails, but of the shells.

In Auckland, I took a walking tour with Tamaki Hikoi up to the volcanic craters on its outskirts. Visitors teemed all over the site, craning for the best vantage point from which to look back towards the modern city. My Māori guide explained that the spot the tourists were standing on (which to most of them represented a hill with a great view of somewhere else) had before the arrival of the Europeans been the site of Maungakiekie, the largest Pa or Neolithic earth fort, in the whole of New Zealand, and many say the world. While most of the other visitors to the hill took their photos and left, we spent almost an hour touring the site and learning its rich history.

Having discussed my experiences with others, I believe that it’s not that most visitors are uninterested in hearing stories like these. It is just they are unaware the opportunities exist, and don't know where to find them. This represents a huge opportunity for hotels to bridge the gap and help positively impact their local communities.

Most guests would prefer a walking tour guided by a local with a story to tell, to after dinner entertainment. If they buy souvenirs, they want to feel that their purchase supports local communities and their artisans. As CEO of Maori Tourism Pania Tyson-Nathan told me, "Today tourists seek depth and breadth; a deeper understanding and connectedness with people and place. The stories that Māori tell provide a window into our Māori world view; how we see and interact with the world around us, providing tourists with unique insights to Māori and New Zealand. An international tourist will not get that anywhere else."

Hoteliers are in the ideal position to provide visitors with the necessary information. By ensuring that the tours and experiences they recommend are run by indigenous people they can guarantee that tourists get the most authentic experience possible, and that they feel more favourably about the hotel and its connections to its community. One of the best examples I saw of a hotel supporting local indigenous tourism - and bringing in extra business - was at the Copthorne Hokianga, on the North West coast of New Zealand's North Island.

The Copthorne is not a remote off grid ecolodge. When I stayed there was a wedding taking place and the bar was filled with people watching the Cricket World Cup on TV. However the general manager of the hotel - Shane Lloyd - is also one of three founders of a remarkable local tour company - Footsteps Waipoua - which employs Maori storytellers as guides.

Each evening a tour sets off from the Copthorne with hotel guests and other visitors. They head into the ancient forest to meet (there really is no other word) a series of two thousand year old Kauri trees. As the only tour company allowed into the forest after dusk, they enable their guests to enjoy unique experiences; they provide essential environmental education about the serious risks these forests face; and they support the continuation of their local Maori stories. Thanks to my guide, and Maori Tourism who introduced me to it, it was one of the absolute highlights of my tour.

"For an Indigenous person, telling our own stories enables us to maintain connectivity between our past, our present and our future," explains Johnny Edmonds, the Director of the World Indigenous Tourism Alliance. "Our stories link us to our ancestors, and remind us of our obligations to all other things that we co-exist with in our natural environment. Sharing our own stories builds self-esteem for who we have become, and gives us a strong platform to move forward further into the future."

With the potential audience for these stories staying in hotels each night, there is no other industry better placed to support this.

Both countries have excellent resources for hotels looking to promote authentic indigenous tourism in their local regions. In Australia start with the Aboriginal Tourism Website from Tourism Australia. In New Zealand go to the Maori Tourism website.

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