Bruce Poon Tip star_rs“Australia has such an amazing indigenous history, most countries would be jealous to have what you have and they do nothing with it,” declares founder and CEO of Gap Adventures Bruce Poon Tip. “They” being Tourism Australia, an organisation Poon Tip is scathing of, particularly in its lack of promoting and supporting indigenous tourism in this country.

It might be worth Tourism Australia’s time to listen to him. This is a man who recently had a private dinner with the vice-president of Columbia, because Columbia wants to tap into his vast knowledge of tourism and how to best develop their assets. He’s given three TED talks on sustainability and travel. When on a quiet family holiday in France, he ended up being recognised and gave a talk with the local minister of tourism for the Loire Valley. He worked with the UN in Arizona talking tourism with the Navajo communities. His business — which organises group tours all over the world — is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has more than 800 employees, offices in 20 cities and takes 100,000 travellers a year on tours.

He’s here in Oz to talk indigenous tourism and sustainability at the Global Eco Conference up in Noosa, an event organised by Ecotourism Australia with the support of the Queensland Government and Tourism Queensland. And so far Poon Tip’s unimpressed with Australia’s lack of indigenous tourism, with Tourism Australia “still very naive” when it comes to promoting its indigenous assets.

“Australia suffers from really good problems. It has so many assets and so much to offer,” he says. One issue is the way that Tourism Australia markets itself, constantly changing slogans and angles. “It’s an ADHD approach to a marketing campaign. The last ad, with all the people saying ‘There’s nothing like… Australia!’, I wanted to stand up and cheer with an Australian flag in hand. It was very patriotic, very American. And those Baz Luhrmann ads were just confusing.”

One issue is that the tourism boards seem to focus on the obvious stereotypes: beaches, sunshine, the Sydney Opera House, increasingly food and wine. Things that are easy to advertise but leave many travellers wanting more. Indigenous tourism is a niche market and “the problem with niche, is that niche needs finessing. It’s a finicky product, it’s not low-hanging fruit”. But customers who are interested in cultural immersion are smart, savvy, sophisticated travellers who are interested in sustainability and helping communities and are willing to spend.

The tourist dollar can be vital for communities to grow and Poon Tip spouts off examples of how his company — through its foundation Planeterra — helps the communities where it travels. Think setting up a women’s weaving co-op in Peru to provide jobs and help maintain traditional weaving techniques, buying and building wheelchairs in Cambodia for landmine victims and plans to open an eyesight centre in Cambodia. And sure, several of these programs then serve as special places their customers can then visit when on a Gap Adventures tour, giving them a nice little one-up on the tours that only offer hotels and air-conditioned buses without the added feel-good. It is afterall a business. But it’s also a way of giving back to communities that help them.

It’s not all bad news: Poon Tip applauds Tourism Victoria’s ‘You’ll love every piece of Victoria‘ campaign, because it allows space for cultural events and attractions to fit in alongside the beaches and sunshine stereotypes. And credit to Australia, things are changing. Just recently an Indigenous Tourism Advisory Panel was established by the Australian Tourism Export Council. But the program needs more than money being thrown at it, says Poon Tip; it needs a mentoring system to help communities figure out what they should market and if they should even be looking at tourism as an option.

There’s an expectation in Australia, he argues, that tourism companies will just come in and do all the hard work. Like working out accessibility — no tourism is viable if you can’t actually get there or if costs are overly prohibitive — and working with communities to figure out what their best assets are, figuring out how to make them sustainable, working out what tourists want to buy, whether they should be aiming for local tourists or international tourists.

But should this be left all up to outside companies to work on or should governments lead this charge? Sure, Poon Tip’s bitter because he’d like to run Gap Adventures tours in Australia that aren’t just your average ‘up the South Coast, see Byron Bay and Cairns!’ style tours. But as he points out, “governments don’t treat cruise ship companies like this. They build ports and harbours and throw millions of dollars at them instead”.

Bruce has promised to write a guest post for Back in a Bit soon, so stay tuned…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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