Responsible tourism in the Northern Territory

The Northern Territory is the fastest growing of the Australian territories. Mostly uninhabited, this vast region’s economy flourishes thanks to one thing: mining. Think you don’t have the power to change that as a tourist? Think again. Visiting national parks and supporting original landowners like the Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders are just a couple of the ways you can make a difference. Read on to find out more about how responsible tourism can help protect the people, parks and wildlife of the Northern Territory.

Aboriginal rights in the Northern Territory

To understand the problems that Aboriginal Australians face today – and learn how your vacation choices can help them – you have to understand the history of the Northern Territory. Aboriginal Australians are thought to be the oldest living civilisation in the world. They’ve lived continuously in Australia for around 58,000 years, unwavering as transient European and Indonesian explorers came and went. It wasn’t until the 19th century that settlers started to stick, tempted by farming and mining opportunities. That’s when the tides turned against indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

Land confiscation for cattle farming was widespread. The protest killing of cattle by Aboriginal Australians was parried with violent revenge from white settlers, who often hired armed gangs to shoot indigenous people seen as a threat. The gold rush era followed, kicking off the development of railways and cities.

The government and missionaries followed hugely damaging assimilation policies in the 20th century. They resettled rural Aboriginal Australians in suburban housing or town camps; they also removed Aboriginal children into white families in a disastrous attempt to absorb indigenous people into the general population. Those that remained on Aboriginal land were – and still are – largely neglected by the government, with access to standard housing, electricity and healthcare often limited.

The Land Rights Act 1976 returned half the Northern Territory to the original landowners. Clan-based communities called outstations sprung up. Despite both deliberate and accidental destruction of their culture, rural Aboriginal Australians managed to mostly keep hold of their clan structure, language and customs. Aboriginal populations increased as conditions improved; they now represent a quarter of the Northern Territory population.
The government’s relationship with Aboriginal Australians is still hugely problematic. Life in the Northern Territory is life on the frontier. Communities are dispersed, isolated and often overlooked. It shows. Australian Aboriginals have the highest death rate and shortest life expectancy in the Northern Territory. Limited access to quality healthcare means that diabetes, alcohol and diet related issues are major problems, and fatal viruses like leukaemia-causing HLTV-1 are a neglected crisis.

Aboriginal Australians also battle with substantially higher unemployment levels, low income, substandard and overcrowded housing, low school attendance rates, and high population turnovers – which all contribute to high rates of crime. To top things off, the justice system has failed both victims and defendants; a Northern Territory judge was heard using racially derogatory terms against Aboriginal Australians in court as recently as 2019. Government programmes have been set up to support Aboriginal communities, but campaigners say that they’re chronically underfunded.

But there is power in tourism. Aboriginal Australians are finding culturally fulfilling job opportunities as hiking and wildlife guides. Through tourism, they have the chance to share their stories and situation to a wider audience – and get paid a living wage for it. Tourism has the potential to return power to people who have been pushed aside for the last 150 years. Aboriginal tourism – when done responsibly – can lift whole communities out of poverty.

What you can do
Travel with a tour operator that works with Aboriginal Australian guides. It’s a win-win situation: you’ll get hair-raising stories covering their clan’s histories and amazing insight into the land, creatures and myths within it. Bark and rock paintings will come to life in the hands of an Aboriginal storyteller. Meanwhile, your investment of time and money goes towards preserving and improving the lives and traditions of Aboriginal Australians. Don’t umm and ahh over buying that intricately woven bag or those beaded sandals. Just do it – you’ll come home with a memorable souvenir and support an important rural industry. Watch out for signs that you’re entering Aboriginal land. It’s private, so you’ll need a personal invitation or permit to enter. You can apply online or travel with a tour operator that’ll sort that out for you. On that note…whatever you do, don’t climb Uluru. Trespassing on this sacred rock will be made illegal towards the end of 2019, but for now it’s just downright disrespectful.

Mining

Aboriginal Australians have always had a symbiotic relationship with the land, making indigenous and environmental rights almost inseparable. Vengeful cattle farmers might’ve been the bloodiest battles that Aboriginal Australians have fought, but in many ways mining has been the most destructive in terms of destroying land and identity.

The Northern Territory is a treasure box of uranium, bauxite, lead, silver, gold, zinc, manganese, and even diamonds. Kakadu National Park is a prime example of how Aboriginal and environmental campaigns often work together. Spills, leaks and deforestation have damaged environment and Aboriginal land. But the traditional owners, the Djok clan, campaigned to include the mined Koongarra Project Area within Kakadu National Park – and won. It’s set a precedent. Elsewhere in the Northern Territory, Australia is to be sued over mining projects that have cracked into indigenous lands without permission.
The promises never last but the problems always do.
– Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula
Mining on Aboriginal land might be getting trickier, but drilling for onshore and offshore petroleum and natural gas is on the up. Sprawling hydrocarbon reserves are tapped in the Timor Sea and Amadeus Basin. And despite a fracking ban in the Northern Territory in 2016, drilling for shale gas is ready to go again, despite worries about the impact on water supplies and Aboriginal camps. But environmental and indigenous protests often don’t stand a chance when a government discovers that they have around six trillion cubic metres of shale gas under their feet.

When the Northern Territory declared a climate emergency in 2019, it gave environmentalists a smidgen of hope. After all, the territory had just experienced one of the driest wet seasons on record. Finally, it seemed like the government officially recognised the need to cut fossil fuel extraction and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the drilling goes on. The world’s largest solar farm is going to be built in the Northern Territory…to provide energy to Singapore. Somehow, the NT’s climate emergency declaration doesn’t quite ring true.

But you’re just a tourist – how can you hope to battle against the government and mining industry? Believe it or not, by traveling there. Tourism has long been one of the most vocal and powerful champions of a country’s precious natural environment.

What you can do
Support Aboriginal Australian land owners and listen to their views, as they’re usually the people on the front line of mining projects. Some are 100 percent anti-mining; others wouldn’t mind if drilling was done with permission and respect. Visit national parks like Kakadu, where mining projects go through waves of shutting down and starting up. Entrance fees will help show your support and demonstrate the economic value of keeping the park pristine. Support Greenpeace Australia and its campaign to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Share the information on social media and sign as many petitions as you can get your mitts on. Petitions with enough signatures often get discussed in Parliament.

Wildlife

The Northern Territory has 400 species of birds, including endemic white-throated grasswrens, chestnut-quilled rock pigeons and banded fruit doves. There are over 150 species of mammals, too, from kangaroos specially adapted to the Northern Territory to Irrawaddy dolphins and native bat species.

NT also has the highest density of saltwater crocodiles on the planet. These supersized crocs are evolutionary masterpieces infamous for their ‘death roll’ hunting tactic. It’s vital that you abide by park signage, stay away from the water’s edge and avoid swimming in their territory. Even smaller freshwater crocs will give you a nasty nip if you accidentally disturb them. It’s worth noting that despite their reputation and proximity to human habitation and waterways, only 14 people have died from crocodile attacks between 2005 and 2014 in the Northern Territory.

Camels are a divisive subject, too. Shipped in as labour animals in the 19th century, they’ve taken to the Northern Territory desert like a saltie to water. Populations have billowed. Each camel can down 100 litres in 10 minutes; they strip trees and grassland vital to native kangaroos, birds and reptiles. Culling has had limited impact, and is often done from helicopters. There’s no way to know whether a camel is killed as humanely as possible. It’s an ongoing challenge for the Northern Territory Outback.

Encouragingly, wildlife tours and cultural tourism are the strongest elements of the tourist industry in the Northern Territory – despite the government’s efforts to build massive resort hotels and casinos.
What you can do
Go on a vacation that swings by national parks like Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu. Your pennies for entrance fees will go towards preserving the Northern Territory’s unique flora and fauna. Protect the crocs by keeping your distance from the water’s edge and listening to guides. If a beast is believed to be a danger to humans then they’ll be euthanised. So don’t put yourself in danger in the first place; it’ll protect both you and the crocodile. Travel on a small group vacation that minimises its impact on the environment. It’s good for you and the Northern Territory: no 50-seater coaches, internationally owned all-inclusive hotels or reheated buffet food. Travel with tour operators that use expert guides like conservationists and Aboriginal Australians. They’ll give you real insight into the ups and downs of wildlife in the Northern Territory. Crocodile farming for meat and leather has grown massively since the 1970s. Don’t buy crocodile products or visit croc farms. Although hailed as humane, farmed crocs are usually taken from the wild, kept in stressful conditions, and looked after by farmers with zero animal keeping qualifications.

Northern Territory responsible tourism tips

Pippa Collins, an Australia specialist at our partners Audley Travel, lived and worked in Kakadu National Park. She has some wise words of advice: “Ensure that the necessary permits are purchased for visiting the national parks, as the fees go towards ensuring the upkeep of these areas. Be respectful. The national parks are still home to many aboriginal communities, so don’t litter, wander from the main pathways or light fires, as these soon spread in such dry conditions. If visiting Kakadu, I recommend the first stop as Bowali visitor center, as they can advise of road conditions and anything else you might need to be aware of in terms of health and safety.”
Aimy Hasson, from our luxury adventure specialists Lekker Boutique Travel, offers these tips:
“Please always respect the Aboriginal culture, do not climb Uluru, and respect sacred sites! Don’t waste water. Do not leave any rubbish behind and do not take anything from National Parks – no rocks or plants.”
David Thomson, a Northern Territory expert with our small group adventure specialists Intrepid Travel, says:
“Please make sure you ask local people for permission before taking photos. It’s also most important that you remain hydrated on our trips. We encourage you to bring along a two-litre long-life water vessel and refill it, rather than buying plastic water bottles en route.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jon Connell] [Aboriginal rights in the Northern Territory: AWS10] [Mining: Jon Connell] [Wildlife: Mark Marathon]
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