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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
23/07/2017
Opportunities and methods for stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia

BAILEY, Mr Geoff, Assistant Secretary, Parks Australia

BALDWIN, Mr Steven, Visitor and Tourism Services Manager, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Parks Australia

MISSO, Mr Michael, Park Manager, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Parks Australia

[16:53]

CHAIR: We will resume the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park evidence. I apologise for the short intermission, but I think it was very, very useful. I think it made reference to some of the concerns that you had, Mr Bailey, in relation to infrastructure requirements.

Mr SNOWDON: Could you tell us what your visitation numbers are currently, or what they have been in over the last couple of years?

Mr Bailey : We can table the numbers, if you'd like.

Mr SNOWDON: That would be great.

Mr Bailey : In round terms, this year around 326,000, I think.

Mr Misso : Yes, for the last calendar year.

Mr SNOWDON: Can you provide us with a longitudinal breakdown over the last 15 or 20 years?

Mr Bailey : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: That would be great, so we can understand what the peaks and troughs are. I assume, given the evidence we've had, we're on the uptrend.

Mr Bailey : We are. Numbers peaked early in the noughties. They declined after 2008-09 and bottomed around 2012 at roughly 250,000—as I say, we can give you the accurate ones—and they've been climbing steadily. The difference between last year and the previous one is a significant rise.

Mr SNOWDON: On the impact of the park, clearly, you are governed by the board of management and also the traditional owners. The way in which the park is managed for tourism is very much—this is a leading question, obviously—the result of your interaction with traditional owners and the park board.

Mr Bailey : Absolutely. It's completely guided by the board.

Mr SNOWDON: The issue which is relevant is: I recall when Maruku Arts used to operate out of a tent, and then we got the visitors centre developed. Has its usage dropped off, or has it increased?

Mr Bailey : The cultural centre?

Mr SNOWDON: Yes—and is there demand for further development of the cultural centre?

Mr Bailey : That is a leading question! Thank you. The cultural centre's usage has declined. Cultural facilities of any description need to be refreshed fairly regularly, and this one is definitely a bit tired. That has ramifications for everyone because it's a crucial facility for the park and for the businesses, et cetera. So yes, it certainly does need quite significant new investment. It has two galleries—you mentioned one of them, Maruku, and Walkatjara was the other one. In summary, it's tired and it needs significant investment structurally—so the building itself, which was quite an expensive and extravagant building when it was built. It has some structural issues that won't be cheap to fix. But the content of building also needs refreshing and renewal. It's well over 20 years old. So we have commenced the process of a master plan for that site, and we need to look seriously at the rejuvenation of the content and the renewal of the content. We'd also like to look at how, in fact, that building is used and occupied. I think it's fair to say, certainly from the traditional owners who are on the board, that there is an incredibly strong emotional bond to that building. I think that derives from when it was designed, and the architects who designed it worked extremely closely with the TOs here. As a consequence of that, there is this strong bond with the building. We will touch it at our peril.

A key thing about it is the commercial side of it—the gallery side of it—really doesn't work well at all. It wasn't designed for gallery spaces—art that is displayed, for example, against windows makes for a very hard way to look at art. We've had preliminary discussions with the board whereby (a) the building needs an upgrade, and (b) we need to design and construct purpose-built gallery facilities adjacent to it, in the same vicinity, and dedicate the freed-up space to a better cultural and interpretive experience. One of the reasons art is a major focus—and you're probably all aware of this—is that it's one of those cultural activities that obliquely allows interaction between traditional owners and the tourists in something that both groups are interested in. It's less confronting than the more direct ways.

Mr SNOWDON: So what discussions have you had with the Commonwealth government in terms of providing some resources for the development of the gallery?

Mr Bailey : We haven't commenced any discussions at all with the Commonwealth government on that. We want to get a clearer idea of what we're proposing in the first place—we've only really just embarked on this exercise. But we would expect to proceed down an NPP path.

Mr SNOWDON: So an NPP is a public-private sector—

Mr Bailey : No, a new policy proposal. That's Department of Finance jargon. A funding bid to government.

Mr SNOWDON: What are the gate takings over the last 12 months?

Mr Baldwin : We'll have to take that on notice. We don't have them to hand.

Mr Misso : I can give an approximate measure. It was about $8 million last year, so just under $2 million going to traditional owners.

Mr SNOWDON: It goes back into the community.

Mr Bailey : Twenty-five per cent of that goes to the community.

Mr SNOWDON: The park fees increased two years ago?

Mr Bailey : No. The park fees haven't increased since 2004, I think it was.

Mr SNOWDON: Is it that long ago? I thought it was more recent.

Mr Baldwin : We introduced a child fee. There hadn't been a child fee prior to that. We introduced a family ticket and a child fee in April last year.

Mr SNOWDON: That's it?

Mr Baldwin : That was the only change, but the adult fee didn't increase.

Mr SNOWDON: What is the current fee?

Mr Bailey : Twenty-five dollars for a three-day pass for an adult and $12.50 for a child.

Mr SNOWDON: I recall the debate that went on in the broader community about both here and Kakadu having park fees. The then Northern Territory government said that it was going to be the end of the world as we knew it if we had park fees. I know that there are concessions for NT residents, which is obvious, but has there been any pressure upon you by tour companies or tourists about the issue of park fees?

Mr Bailey : Not that I'm aware of.

Mr Baldwin : To be honest, no.

Mr Bailey : If anything, there is an expectation that they're too low. Certainly from the informal feedback I get, there is a view that the park fees here at Uluru—and that is as opposed to the other parks—are not high enough for the quality of the experience you get.

Mr Misso : To add to what Geoff said: at one of the tourism consultative committee meetings we had, that was actually raised by one of the tour operators. There wasn't a consensus that that would be something that that committee would recommend, but it was actually raised through discussion.

Mr SNOWDON: So the issue of park fees is not something which is dominating discussion, but, if the government moved to indicate to you that they thought, in conjunction with the board of management, that you should increase fees, say to 30 bucks instead of 25, you'd expect that that wouldn't be too onerous?

Mr Bailey : No, not at all. My suspicion is, given the length of time since the last rise, you would be looking at more than just $5.

Mr SNOWDON: How do your fees compare to other parks internationally?

Mr Bailey : I don't know if we've done that comparison.

Mr Baldwin : Not as yet.

Mr SNOWDON: Would you mind taking that on notice and coming back to us with—

Mr Bailey : You may be thinking of Kakadu, where we did recently lift park fees, and that was a bit controversial. But that is a different situation to here.

Mr SNOWDON: You engage a number of Aboriginal people to work in the park. What sorts of numbers have we got and what is the turnover of Aboriginal staff?

Mr Misso : At the moment, we've got a combination of, I guess, three ways that we engage traditional owners. One is directly through the public service. At the moment, we've got six staff—of about 35 full-time equivalents, so about 15 per cent—who are public service staff. Then we engage through the Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation, through what we call the Mutitjulu community ranger program. That's a pool of people who, by choice, might want to work casually. They're engaged on things like fire management programs. Something that's happened over the last year is more increased interpretive activities at the cultural centre. I haven't got the figures here, but I estimate there are maybe a pool of 25 people engaged on these programs on a part-time basis. And, although this is indirect, through the activity at the cultural centre with the Aboriginal businesses, people are engaged through activities such as painting dot paintings or doing carvings. So, indirectly, by supporting those businesses to be there, we're sort of providing that indirect employment as well.

Mr SNOWDON: There is an issue that I recall historically was very much alive when the park became a reality. I remember that the tour operators, both here and in the Northern Territory generally, thought that the Aboriginal experience should be seeing an Aboriginal person with a naga and a spear, and there was no view that they should be engaged in terms of owning the outcome or owning the experience. One of the other items which was really resisted was the idea of tourist operator accreditation. What currently exists? What's the current status?

Mr Baldwin : The park led the country with the Knowledge for Tour Guides scheme and the accreditation of tour operators a few years ago. So all operators who take tours onto the park need to be licensed under a permit, and the guides need to have completed, through Charles Darwin University, the Knowledge for Tour Guides. It has been very successful.

CHAIR: Are many of those Indigenous?

Mr Baldwin : The tour operators?

CHAIR: The small guide businesses and that.

Mr Baldwin : Quite a few. A couple from Alice Springs and a couple of locals engage Aboriginal guides.

CHAIR: Do you reckon they would qualify for the Northern Australia Tourism Initiative, with their $750,000 entry fee?

Mr Baldwin : I do not have the exact figures, but there are a number of Indigenous guides employed by the tour operators.

CHAIR: No, I'm talking about these small guiding businesses. Would they be able to qualify to apply for that with a $750,000 turnover?

Mr Misso : Steve will know more, but the two businesses that I mentioned—Maruku and Walkatjara—from my understanding, would turn over more than that. And See It, one of the companies who engages traditional owners to do a tour outside the park, I imagine they would. I guess that is a question for those companies.

Ms O'TOOLE: I imagine that, from time to time, there is a bit of conflict between the traditional owners and the expectations of tourists and tourism operators. How do you generally manage that? Does that happen often?

Mr Misso : I would just like to make an observation. I mentioned that I worked here 20 years ago. Without speaking for traditional owners, my perception is that tourism was seen as an issue back then but now it is seen as an opportunity—provided that it is done in the right way. As we know, it has to be authentic experiences, it has to be high quality and it has to be on the terms that Anangu want to deliver it - that is, not to be seen as showcases or showpieces. I think there is a really good opportunity collectively within the region—through the resort, through the park and through other tour companies—that we are not actually tapping into. To me the Mutitjulu community, the park and the resort are intrinsically aligned into the future. But collectively as a region we could do a lot better there.

Ms O'TOOLE: Have you thought about how you might do that?

Mr Misso : It is a big challenge. It is about capacity-building with traditional owners and also building the capacity of tour companies to work with traditional owners. So two-way capacity building is probably the key.

Senator McCARTHY: I want to go back to the statistics around Indigenous staffing. How many staff are employed here in parks?

Mr Misso : We have an FTE of about 35 park staff on our books, but then we have some casual people working mainly at the entry station. Six staff, or about 15 per cent of our staff, are Anangu people from the local area.

Senator McCARTHY: From Muddi?

Mr Misso : Yes. And about 35 per cent of our staff are Indigenous—combining people from other places as well. Recently our board of management endorsed some indicators for employment targets. In terms of APS employees, the target was 25 per cent Anangu employees. In terms of the total wages going to Anangu employment—that could be through casual and ongoing positions—the target is 40 per cent. We are trying to do a minimum of 40 per cent. We are not there yet. We have a long way to go, but we are setting some targets to head that way.

Senator McCARTHY: You say you have 35 FTE. Is that 35 across the board?

Mr Misso : Yes.

Senator McCARTHY: I want to go back to MCAC and the community ranger program. Do you have any numbers around that, even just estimates?

Mr Misso : I would have to get the numbers. At the moment, I estimate that there are about 25 people on the books. That covers a whole range of employment. We have a tourism consultative committee, and we have members brought on for that committee. We have a cultural heritage committee. We have a film and photography committee. There is work on those committees. The majority of the board members are Anangu, so there are people employed there, but there are also people employed more on park work programs. The interpretive activities and the natural resource and cultural resource management would be the two biggest programs.

Senator McCARTHY: Would you, in any of your salaries, use CDP?

Mr Misso : No. We have a direct MOU with MCAC, so we employ through MCAC for casual labour. So it's direct engagement with them.

Mr SNOWDON: So they're a sort of labour hire company for you.

Mr Misso : In a sense, yes. Through the park lease agreement, there are conditions there that we have to work with the relevant Aboriginal association, which is MCAC.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you.

Senator DODSON: Back on infrastructure questions, are there any proposals to increase infrastructure provision? Are you coping with the number of people coming there now with your infrastructure?

Mr Bailey : I should also mention here that we've been focusing on Voyages here, but the other component in this equation is the community of Mutitjulu itself. Muti is growing. The population is growing, the demand for housing is growing et cetera. So they are hitting that same housing brick wall over there as well, and the service capacity is relevant to there as well.

It's fair to say that we have just commenced roundtable discussions with the NT government. They've demonstrated enthusiasm for sitting down and solving the services problem, and we've had telephone conversations, but the next sit-down with all of the key players is next week to work out what the short-term plan is—how to deal with our immediate demands for housing in the next six months to a year—and the long-term plan—what are the growth projections for Mutitjulu, for Voyages and for us, and how we're going to tackle that.

Senator DODSON: So that links back to power, sewerage and water?

Mr Bailey : Exactly. Absolutely. That is the beginning of the line.

Senator DODSON: Is that all generated out of the community infrastructure?

Mr Bailey : At the moment, Mutitjulu's services are supplied by Parks Australia. Probably service provision is not our strong suit—running sewage farms and those sorts of things. So part of those negotiations is to work with NT Power and Water et cetera to transition those services over to them.

Senator DODSON: Do you have a cost in mind as to what the upgrade of that would be?

Mr Bailey : What it costs us at the moment?

Senator DODSON: What it would cost to improve the situation across those three particular areas.

Mr Bailey : No, I don't, but I can give you an indication. For example, Mutitjulu electricity is supplied by generators, which we are paying for and operating.

Senator DODSON: Diesel?

Mr Bailey : Diesel generators. That's not a long-term answer to power for Mutitjulu. One potential outcome—all the ducks have to line up—is that we could link in with the Yulara power supply through NT Power and Water et cetera. But that would require trenching from Yulara to Mutitjulu, 20 kilometres or whatever it is, so the ballpark for that is $12 million to $14 million just for the trenching. You would drop all your services in that trench if you could—water as well.

Senator DODSON: Is there a time line in this? I note you said something's on next week.

Mr Bailey : There is certainly urgency to get some short-term answers to this. We've just recently had to replace the generators at Mutitjulu, because the last ones are at the end of their life, but that, to us, is a temporary fix. We need to find a proper long-term fix for Mutitjulu.

Senator DODSON: That then impacts on the sort of comforts you can provide to the tourists who frequent the park?

Mr Bailey : Exactly. It impacts on the upgrading of the cultural centre. It impacts on everything. If we had a choice between a road going west and this infrastructure, I know what we'd choose.

Mr SNOWDON: In the terms of the original lease agreement, the Commonwealth assumes those responsibilities, does it not?

Mr Bailey : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: The financial responsibility for the provision of those services is a Commonwealth responsibility?

Mr Misso : We might have to take that on notice. From what I recall, I do not think the lease agreement is that specific on essential services. It is more to do with supporting maintenance of Aboriginal tradition, which goes back to traditional owners and employment. So we will just have to take that on notice.

Mr SNOWDON: It would be useful for us to have a precise idea of where the responsibilities lie and why they lie there.

Mr Bailey : How they ended up with us?

Mr SNOWDON: Yes.

Mr Misso : We will follow that up. It has probably just been historical because of the park's early presence in the community. There are other organisations that have come along since, but I think it is just a lot to do with historical legacy. We will take that on notice.

Senator DODSON: I have a question on the interconnectedness of cultural experiences and your capacity to provide those within the park. I have heard some of the things you have said about the limitations on the cultural centre. But, outside of that, how does this concept that was raised earlier about the encounter with the spirituality of Uluru work?

Mr Misso : It is a very big question. I do not have all the answers here today. But the point I made earlier is that I think there is capacity building needed on both sides. The way I perceive it is that we have this fantastic experience for visitors. We have a community of people who are looking for opportunities. There is a gap in the middle in bringing those two together. I think there is a very good opportunity for us, Voyages, MCAC and others in the region to look at a holistic model to bring those two together. At the moment, I do not think we are doing that job as well as we could. I mean that collectively in the region. But I also think that there is a very good opportunity to progress that.

Mr SNOWDON: What are the expectations? I am assuming you do tourism surveys.

Mr Misso : Yes. We have an online survey. We have only just got that. Steve will be able to answer some more about that. That is something we need to get more data on.

Mr SNOWDON: What I would like to find out is how the expectations of tourists have changed over 20 years. I am imagining that 20 years ago 75 per cent, 80 per cent or even 90 per cent would have wanted to climb the rock. I am imagining that now it is probably less than 50 per cent.

Mr Misso : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Do you have any data on that at all?

Mr Baldwin : At the moment, at the board's request, we have engaged a consultant to collate that data. I am not sure that the results are back yet. But we are looking in detail at that.

Mr SNOWDON: So people are not having their noses put out of joint by having it suggested to them that the TOs would like them to walk around the rock rather than over it?

Mr Misso : The report that Steve referred to suggested that just over 20 per cent of people who come to Uluru actually climb Uluru. It did not talk about intentions, but that is the approximate number we estimate at the moment.

Mr SNOWDON: Is the response that everyone loves Kata Tjuta?

Mr Misso : Yes.

CHAIR: How big an area are we talking for the national park?

Mr Misso : The park is an area of about 1,325 square kilometres. What happens invariably though is that a lot of the visitor activity is focused at Kata Tjuta and Uluru and the sunset area.

CHAIR: The reason I ask is that I was involved some years ago in a previous position with expanding opportunities into Kakadu. There was a desire by the traditional owners there to show some of their particular areas. There was a real need for new product et cetera. In this area here, are all of the areas of interest currently accessible or are there opportunities there for new product that could, with the approval of the TOs of course, be developed to expand the tourism experience within the park?

Mr Bailey : I think here much more than Kakadu people come for two reasons. They come for a big rock and they come for the cultural experience. The answer to your question is, yes, there could be other product developed undoubtedly, but that is not the same as saying, 'There are other areas of the park that could or should be opened up.'

Mr SNOWDON: What about the proposal for a monorail?

CHAIR: No, no, I'm talking—

Mr SNOWDON: From a senior public servant, I might say.

CHAIR: Again, with that also comes the next obvious question, which is whether or not there's an appetite from within the traditional owners to be able to have more of the area opened up for tourism experiences.

Mr Bailey : Not in terms of that 1,300 square kilometres, I don't think. The focus for visitors is always going to be and always will be the rock and Kata Tjuta. But ways of enjoying that experience, and in particular interacting with traditional owners and gaining an insight into culture and spirituality, is where the focus is.

CHAIR: But you're also associated with the other parks.

Mr Bailey : Yes.

CHAIR: Like Kakadu. It's a different situation.

Mr Bailey : Very different.

CHAIR: It's a totally different situation. Would you agree that there is a desire or need for more experiences there?

Mr Bailey : I would say the desire is a bit stronger here than it is in Kakadu, but it certainly exists in both parts, definitely. On the differences, there's a pragmatic difference—

CHAIR: This is Northern Australia we're looking at here.

Mr Bailey : I understand. There is a pragmatic difference between the two parks. To be blunt, you could triple the number of visitors into Uluru and manage that number without, in my opinion, having significant environmental impacts.

CHAIR: As long as you've got your water and sewerage infrastructure to accommodate it.

Mr Bailey : Exactly. You can't do that in Kakadu, because of the nature of the place and for many of the attractions a busload would be too many before you destroy the values of the thing that people are going to see. You can centralise visitation here and manage those visitors without having to significant environmental impacts and without having them spread out all over the place. In Kakadu, the issue is really the opposite: it's about managing small numbers of people over a wide area so that they are not impacting on any one spot significantly.

CHAIR: No more questions?

Mr SNOWDON: No, just an observation. Michael used to be the manager of the national park on Christmas Island. We're off to Christmas Island on this same inquiry in September.

Mr Misso : Make sure you look at the new safari campsite.

Mr SNOWDON: I will. Where is it?

Mr Misso : Martin Point.

CHAIR: There have been a couple of requests there in relation to additional information. If you could provide that to us, that would be greatly appreciated. The date that we require that by is 10 August. Again, thank you very much indeed for your time. It has been greatly appreciated. It's very, very useful. Again, I apologise for the break in there.

Mr Misso : Could we just also table this supplementary submission?

CHAIR: Absolutely.