AAT Kings celebrates indigenous culture with community-based tourism.
To create a lasting and meaningful connection, you must first start with the simplest of acts: listening.
It’s a lesson that Adam Zammit has learned first-hand living on the country of the Anangu people. The AAT Kings Yulara operations manager coordinates tours around Central Australia’s most auspicious Aboriginal sites, including Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas).
“The listen part really, really resonates with me,” says Zammit. “The Aboriginal people in this part of the country have an extremely shy nature. You need to take your time to listen, extend your hand and learn from that person. We’re on their country.”
Listening, of course, means letting people tell their own stories, especially when those sacred stories have a multi-millennia heritage.
AAT Kings embraces its role as a cultural connector between guests and First Nations Australians, now further embedding this philosophy into its continent-spanning range of guided holidays, short breaks and day-tour experiences, from Nitmiluk Gorge to Cape Naturaliste and Arnhem Land to Kakadu.
“We have been providing that connection, that introduction, between traveller and community for quite some time,” says Matt Fuller, the CEO of AAT Kings Group. “It’s now become a very embedded way of doing things. We just open people’s minds to that innate sense of listening, understanding and taking in that really helps celebrate culture.”
Achieving connections with the knowledge-holders across such a breadth of cultures is no easy feat.
“Our experiences right across the country connect with local Indigenous businesses, families and communities. We work in partnership with every one of them to create a connection. We put a spotlight on how they do things.”
“We see ourselves as being able to facilitate but we’re not the experts. So, visitors have the opportunity to go on their own learning journey and understand what it is about those different Aboriginal communities that are really special.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to connect with First Nation communities, so AAT Kings focuses on three strategies: partner, employ and empower.
The Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience, based in the Kings Canyon community of Wanmarra, population 10, is a classic example of a symbiotic partnership. Originally established to preserve and maintain Southern Aranda language and cultural knowledge, Karrke now introduces guests to their culture with hands-on displays featuring bush tucker and medicine, and captivating discussions about spiritual healing practices through AAT Kings’ small group sister brand, Inspiring Journeys.
The key to nurturing connections starts with giving due recognition to Traditional Owners. Over the next few months, every AAT Kings vehicle will be fitted with an Acknowledgement of Country plaque.
“It’s important to formally acknowledge the communities,” says Fuller. “When people get onboard, it’s one of the first things they will see. It pays respect and gives people an insight into the fact they’re in a special place.”
Yulara Operations Manager Adam Zammit had to ensure the plaque took into account the Red Centre’s multicultural essence. “Our experiences cover four countries: Luritja, Pitjantjatjara, Arrernte, Yankunytjatjara,” says Zammit. “We certainly didn’t just want to have a generic one, so our plaques incorporate an acknowledgement to the Aboriginal people of all the lands we travel through.”
“I love the ‘listening’ theme in the acknowledgment that says: ‘First Nations people ask you to listen carefully here, let the knowledge you hear come through your ears, into your mind and settle into your heart’.”
Of course, the sacred ‘Welcome to Country’, included on many tours, will only ever be performed by people from the communities themselves. AAT Kings’ Cataract Gorge experience features one of the few opportunities in Tasmania where outsiders can witness a formal ‘Welcome to Country’, performed by a local Palawa enterprise.
AAT Kings employs First Nations people as guides and support staff where possible, in an effort to foster deeper, more sustainable relationships. All but two of the Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Cultural Tours staff are Aboriginal, conducting art experiences and tours.
“It’s crucial to work with the community and appreciate that sense of belonging – understand why that’s important,” says Fuller.
For non-Indigenous staff it is crucial to build strong community ties through joint local projects, often facilitated by AAT Kings’ not-for-profit TreadRight Foundation.
“We just pumped 400 volunteering hours into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park over six weeks, which we’re really proud of,” says Zammit.
“Staff at all levels were out working in conjunction with Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation and Parks Australia, ‘healing’ country and building relationships. We were eradicating invasive species [weeding buffel grass] and also contributing to a fauna survey [making new ‘traps’ so Traditional Owners can monitor animal species].”
The most important element for front-line staff is cultural education. Guides in places such as Uluru and Kakadu must complete two Charles Darwin University-accredited programs (designed in conjunction with local communities), which delve into complex, culturally sensitive knowledge. In Yulara, staff can also do a six-week Pitjantjatjara language course and bond with the Anangu community.
“The majority of our tour guides travel across multiple Aboriginal nations so we need to ensure we instil in-depth knowledge of all the different cultures,” says Zammit. “And because the traditional owners have a big input into the courses, we are able to share knowledge and some stories that they passed onto us.”
With tens of thousands of years’ worth of knowledge to take in, this learning process will literally never end. “AAT Kings is on a learning journey,” says Fuller. “We’re continually looking at how we can work with communities in the most sensitive and appropriate way,” he says.