If you need to know how to quickly take the itch out of a swollen mosquito bite or find a crystal-clear, low-risk place to swim in the Daintree, Juan Walker can show you. The proprietor of Walkabout Cultural Adventures has been taking visitors around Kuku Yalanji country in far-north Queensland for almost two decades.
Lately, many of those visitors have discovered Walker’s tours a new way – through Welcome to Country, a marketplace for Indigenous travel experiences. Walker estimates that Welcome to Country, which currently features 400 operators and over 1,000 experiences, is now one of his largest booking referrers. Given the website only officially launched on 2 December, it’s an impressive result.
Since the site soft-launched earlier this year, Walker says, “bookings started to come in straight away”. While Walker’s business is listed through many online travel agents, he has already noticed a difference with Welcome to Country. “They’re really trying to be respectful to the people of the country. When it comes to cultural appropriation, and to protocols, these guys are doing it the right way.”
Rhoda Roberts, head of First Nations at the Sydney Opera House, who sits on the board of Welcome to Country, says this careful approach is critical to their mission. “Really ensuring that there’s authenticity, and the authorship and control from a cultural tourism operation perspective, that brings in all the ecology of who we are as First Nations.”
Highlighting operators – or even allowing them to use their own branding – is atypical for an online travel agency. When browsing through the services that dominate “things to do” bookings, even the name of the organisation you’re booking with will not always be obvious at first glance.
Another point of difference is Welcome to Country’s not-for-profit status. While they still charge operators a 20% fee, which is on the low end of average for an online travel agent (“not much at all,” Walker says), profits will be reinvested in improving the product and into the Indigenous tourism industry more broadly.
At the moment, the sector’s biggest challenge is awareness. Roberts points to findings by Tourism Research Australia which suggest the majority of both domestic and international tourists who are interested in having Indigenous cultural experiences do not know how to access them. “So we realised it was the visibility, and [understanding] of what is cultural tourism? Where can you go to find out?” She says people have preconceived assumptions about cultural tourism, but “we can offer everything from a day spa to being on the beach, or learning about the French history of Western Australia”.
Welcome to Country is backed by venture capitalist Roger Allen’s Indigenous Capital Limited, and the platform’s CEO, Jason Eades, says the platform’s primary purpose is “to