It was on a tour of Europe with a group of Aboriginal people to promote Australia in the early ’90s that tourism boss John Morse caught the bug.
The pilots’ strike had devastated his industry, and the group from Tjapukai near Cairns toured with him through London, Paris and Berlin to stoke up interest in Australian tourism.
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“It was a life changing experience for me because I had very little understanding before of Aboriginal culture,” he says. “A most extraordinary experience”.
The group had performed around Europe, lighting fires by rubbing sticks, dancing and singing songs, culminating in a performance at the London Savoy in a performance before 400 people in black tie.
“The audience loved it.”
Late last year when we first spoke to this former head of Australian Tourist Commission, who headed up Australia’s Olympics tourism project, and led the opening up of the Asian tourism market, he was pleased to have completed his magnum opus, a 20-year masterplan for Aboriginal cultural tourism on behalf of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land and Yolngu leader Djawa “Timmy” Burarrwanga.
The Yolgnu gained national attention and a huge measure of respect for presenting the “bark petitions” land rights claims in 1963, credited with the start of the land rights movement in Australia.
Under Morse’s stewardship the Lirrwi project has attracted 13 corporate supporters, all eminent Australians including venture capital chief Mark Carnegie, former Qantas head Geoff Dixon, head of investment for the Australian Trade Commission Jane Madden and Professor Andrew Hull.
Delivered in 2012 the strategy, and the Lirrwi business that inspired it, are still fresh and when we spoke, very much a work in progress.
Last year the business won the Banksia Leadership for Sustainability Award.
In a follow up conversation in recent weeks, ahead of completing this short series of articles on the Lirrwi tours, Morse was far more downbeat.
In January Lirrwi was placed in special administration by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.
There is hope the business can be brought back to financial health and it’s understood that the corporate supporters are working hard to help.
A spokeswoman from the ORIC told The Fifth Estate that special administration allows the administrator to place at heart the interests of the corporation members rather than creditors.
Time will tell, but for Arnhem Land’s Yolgnu people it will be a nail-biting time.
For Morse, at an age pushing 70, you can tell it’s a legacy that’s incredibly important for him to leave behind in good shape.
So too for a great many other people.
The business is an exciting idea and one Morse says was long overdue.
It centres on a short but intense cultural experience, living with local Aboriginal communities on their own homelands, learning some language and culture.
When I first catch up with Morse, it is in a phone conversation from his home in Bellingen, NSW. I’d just returned from a trip with Lirrwi and was struck by the subtle impact of the visit that seemed to grow as I got further away from it.
I ask Morse about the rise in Aboriginal enterprises and I mention the extraordinary number of hits racked up by an article from our journalist Willow Aliento on AllGrid Energy, an Aboriginal company that looked like it would beat Tesla to the punch with a new solar power storage system.
What did Morse think was going on?
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “There’s a quiet revolution going on that most people have no idea about.”
There had now been a couple of generations of Aboriginal people who were demonstrating they could cut it in “white-fella land” and had seized an amazing array of opportunities, “in architecture, law, medicine, in businesses and in tourism.
“Let’s not be unrealistic and deny that there are a lot of issues in the communities,” he said.
Morse embarked on Aboriginal tourism in 1995, after his European tour with the Aboriginal performers.
The sector as a sub-offering of regular tourism to Australia was “quite a lonely place back then”, he recalls.
There had been the Tjitchala tours that promised a high-end experience in the Central Desert, developed by an early champion of Aboriginal cultural tourism, former Macquarie Bank property chief Bill Moss.
Others included an experience in the Torres Strait and with the Anangu walking tours, and some products at Cape Levique in northern Western Australia. In Melbourne there was a Koori Heritage Trust and a Tribal warrior event in Sydney harbour.
Morse was quickly hooked and he soon met Timmy “Djawa” Burarrwanga who talked about his vision for Arnhem Land.
“I started going up to the Garma festival and talked to a lot of people for a number of years.”
Another inspiration for Morse was musician and businessman Paul Ah Chee Ngala.
In 2002 and 2003 Morse was director of Voyagers Hotels and Resorts. He prepared a review of Kakadu National Park for the federal government and concluded there were hundreds of thousands of people going there but with no connection to the people who had lived in that area for 40,000 years.
“In 2010 Djawa formed a company called Lirrwi Tourism as an Aboriginal corporation and it grew bigger and bigger.”
In 2012 came a conference at Nhulunbuy.
“There were 140 people and at the end everybody had grasped hold of the vision.”
During my first conversation with him I said I’d picked up snatches of concern that the business might have been growing a little too fast.
Morse said it was possible that “we’re still not getting things quite right” and that there was still “a lot of work to do”.
This turned out to be prescient. But the confidence that these businesses are fostering in Aboriginal people and the support in the past at least from the Northern Territory government and corporates like the Indigenous Land Corporation, were outstanding.
“All believe in it with a passion,” he said at the time.
Morse can see it is a brilliant opportunity for reconciliation at a profound level.
This is about a sense of justice, he says. A sense, from the Aboriginal point of view, that “our people, our culture has been around for 40,000 years and it’s been totally ignored by white people”.
“When we can share our culture with white people, they respect it,” he says.
“That creates a sense of justice.” And pride in the culture, he adds.
There are numerous other benefits: from getting off welfare and creating economic benefit, and the engagement between “the three year old and the 93 year old”.
It’s about caring for country and being able to stay on the homelands, and quite simply too about being in a healthy place and eating fresh natural food.
Some words from the strategic plan
“People who come to Arnhem Land with an open mind and a willingness to respect and learn about our culture always go away feeling different to when they arrive. Many of our guests call it a life-changing experience. To step outside the comfort zone of everyday life can bring great rewards. This is what makes a visit to Arnhem Land so special.
“We have had 40,000 years of training and learning which help us to look after our visitors, but we also understand that we have to learn many new things. Training and learning about what our visitors need, how to handle emergencies, driving, cooking and other things will make us more successful and give our visitors a better experience. We also need to learn about running businesses and financial management.”