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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
Opportunities and methods for stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia

AH CHEE, Mr Paul, Director, Alice Springs Desert Park (Department of Tourism and Culture)


CHAIR: We now welcome our next representative from the Alice Springs Desert Park. These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. As indicated, the proceedings are recorded by Hansard and attract parliamentary privilege. I invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we can fire off with some questions.

Mr Ah Chee : As with my colleague that spoke prior to my presentation, there has been a submission submitted by the Northern Territory government in relation to this particular standing committee, but I would like to thank the committee for allowing me to put some points of view across.

I will just start off by talking about the Alice Springs Desert Park. The park itself has been operating since 1997. The development of the park was primarily to promote, present and interpret the intriguing life of Australian deserts, and this would also include spirituality of landscape and its people. It is providing an environment where people can get a good understanding of that connection and that connectivity.

The Alice Springs Desert Park is a major attraction of the township of Alice Springs, but it is also a facility which showcases a diversity of flora and fauna, habitats and ecosystems of the region for around about a 500-kilometre radius of the centre. We have quite diverse departments within the Desert Park. We have a botanical section. We have over 600 species of seed that we collect in our database. We propagate rare and endangered plants from this region, which are slowly but surely disappearing due to devastation of habitat through a wide range of things. We have a zoological collection, a zoological department, and within that department we have rare and endangered species. We are part of a national recovery program that is rolled out across Australia, and within that there are five species that are really under threat.

We have Aboriginal cultural experiences that we do with Aboriginal guides, and then we do a whole series of presentations in terms of products, such as a free flight bird show as well as a nocturnal presentation showcasing nocturnal animals. We also house probably the best nocturnal house in the world as we know it. We develop a lot of partnerships. We currently have a partnership with Ngurratjuta, who run the gift shop and entry station within the desert park.

We have over 45 full-time staff. With casuals, it is around about 65 to 70. Out of that, we run about 25 per cent Aboriginal employment. There is myself, as the director, and then there are a lot of Aboriginal people that work below that, but it is a long way down the ladder that I can hardly see them. It is a matter of how we actually develop strategies to create pathways for Aboriginal people within the Northern Territory Public Service to get into positions where they are making decisions and providing direction for each respective department.

In my capacity as the director, I also sit on the Aboriginal Tourism Advisory Council, which basically has representation from different members and individuals that work within the tourism industry in the Northern Territory. I am also a director of the Desert Knowledge Australia Precinct, which is about providing opportunities for people to show more innovation in terms of what we might do here in Central Australia.

In just addressing some of the opportunities, Central Australia, for whatever reason other than the obvious, is primarily seen as the cultural capital of Australia, even though there is strong culture in other parts of Australia and specifically in northern Australia from the Kimberleys across to the Cape York. It is a perspective that is quite widely shared that for some reason—and I gather it might have to do with Uluru—they see Central Australia as the cultural capital. There is a unique opportunity for development of product and for capitalising on that perspective. That has been quite clearly demonstrated.

In terms of those opportunities within that capacity of Aboriginal people becoming involved in developing product, it was interesting hearing the evidence put up by Indigenous Business Australia and the Champions Program. With Indigenous businesses, I think there are quite a few that are primarily more sole operators or sole traders. There are very few large businesses. If you want to include Nitmiluk, they are a large business along with what happens down at Yulara. Other than that, they are all small operators. Ngurratjuta, following behind, is also a large operator. However, the Champions Program was something was significant in terms of providing opportunities for Aboriginal people to grow their businesses and then with the capacity for them to be able to change their business model. I think a lot of the small businesses now need to look at how they change their model so that they become more of an incubator themselves. That is something that I think that the Alice Springs Desert Park has the capacity to do.

Right now, we are looking at putting on an apprentice in horticulture. This is on top of the 25 per cent. That position will start within the next two or three weeks. Then we have two Indigenous trainees that will come on board on a six-month trainee program, and hopefully we will be able to find jobs for them as we go forward. That will be in marketing, administration and in our maintenance section. That is where I would probably like to stop. I could go on forever.

Senator DODSON: Thank you for that presentation. Who visits the centre?

Mr Ah Chee : The Desert Park has a similar breakdown to what was said before. We have about 65 per cent domestic and 35 per cent international visitation. The numbers have increasingly grown over the last five years. That is probably due to a lot of external factors that impact on people being able to visit Central Australia but also with the work that Tourism NT has done over that period in marketing. We have certainly seen numbers grow with the Desert Park from about 48,000 people five years ago to now around about 72,000. That is the growth over five years, and revenue is a lot bigger than that.

Senator DODSON: Is there a fee charged to come into the park?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes, there is a fee. There is a $32 entry fee for general admission, but there are a lot of different packages that go along with that. We look at free independent travellers coming in as well as groups. But I must say that in the Desert Park we see a great opportunity for intrinsically looking at intertwining into the fabric of our community and society and how we interpret the collections a strong Aboriginal methodology.

There are old grandmothers now that come in—some of them not so old—with their grandchildren. They do not have the capacity to get a car and go out bush anymore or they have health problems. They come into the park and they use the park as a cultural rebuilding/rejuvenation. I think that is something that is really positive in terms of us providing them with the park.

Senator DODSON: Intergenerational transmission of knowledge and experience?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes. Even the business model of the Desert Park probably needs to have a bit of a change in terms of what we are doing and how we are doing it so that that may then impact upon the social, cultural, environmental and economic impacts that we see out here and in society.

Senator DODSON: Instead of culturally mapping this digitally, you do it by experiences that people are encountering?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Senator DODSON: Can you tell me a bit about the nocturnal exhibition?

Mr Ah Chee : We have a nocturnal house. In the nocturnal house we house several different species of rare and endangered species from the bilby to the mala, all the way through to ghost bats and several different species of reptiles. We have a nocturnal tour that operates at night, where we have these particular animals free ranging so that people have the opportunity to witness these animals with our keepers and our guides and then have an engagement with that particular animal, get an explanation about those animals and their habitats. People will not see these animals out in the wild anymore. It has been really significant in terms of getting Aboriginal people, where these animals are a part of their totem or a part of their dreaming, to come in and see these animals. Because they do not see them anymore. There can also be a cultural revival in that, in terms of getting those particular animals and then reliving those stories, going to the Araluen Cultural Precinct, getting that information and then reliving it back in real life and in real terms. I think we are seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we could possibly do with the Desert Park with the facilities and its collections.

Senator DODSON: We were witness to a modern-day kind of nocturnal experience with these lights at Uluru the other night. I am wondering how much more enhanced the Uluru experience could be if you had actual living marsupials and things that came from that country as opposed to just some nice coloured lights. They were nice, but it is a modern-day sort of encounter. It is not a scene that you will see anywhere else, I must say.

Mr Ah Chee : Yes. We do have the Parrtjima Festival, which has just started. That is a major festival, which is based on Aboriginal mythology and the artworks. That is projected up onto the range, with very powerful projectors, similar to Vivid, which basically lights up the Opera House in Sydney. That is ongoing. It has funding now for the next four years, and it is a great opportunity for the promotion of Aboriginal culture and the connection to country. It then ties in with what the Araluen Cultural Precinct does and other major festivals that happen in the Northern Territory and across Northern Australia. I would imagine that these festivals will then draw people into the region, because we have the weather, the collections and we have the culture. I think it is a great opportunity.

Senator DODSON: Do you see that as integral to the Aboriginal gallery that is being proposed? What you have got there and Araluen and other places seems to have some kind of synergies that could enhance the whole prospect.

Mr Ah Chee : I think there are great opportunities. There is synergy within those particular entities and certainly, from my perspective, what a cultural centre might look like or what a cultural precinct might look like to me is about habitat. It is about people walking through living collections. It is about all of those elements, actually inspiring people to look at coming up with ideas and how we use those ideas. In terms of youth, what technology might be used to be able to tell stories in language and then translate that into Chinese. We look at the Chinese market and all of those markets we are looking at bringing into Australia to enhance tourism. I think there is great opportunity and great scope. It is about education. As the honourable Warren Snowdon mentioned earlier, somebody may not have an education but they can operate technology. It is how we actually make that happen. Interpretation of those collections I think can happen.

Senator DODSON: So a lot of your interpreters or presenters out there are local people?

Mr Ah Chee : We do not have interpretation as such.

Senator DODSON: Guides?

Mr Ah Chee : Guides, yes.

Senator DODSON: The stories and the creatures are being presented by local people?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Senator DODSON: Local Indigenous?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Senator DODSON: Are they primarily Indigenous people?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes. All of our public presentations are done by Aboriginal guides, and then we have our scientific zoologists and horticulturalists that come in and provide that background in terms of the scientific sense, but then it is about connection.

Senator DODSON: Thank you.

Senator McCARTHY: I would like to go to your employment figures and to go further from what the chair spoke about. You say about 25 per cent are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Senator McCARTHY: Would you be able to share with the committee what those positions generally might be?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes. There is a position within grounds maintenance, which basically works autonomously really. That is one of our local Tos, who does a great job in terms of looking at maintaining the grounds and in terms of making sure there are firebreaks and all of those sorts of things. There are a lot of sacred sites and sites of significance within the 1,300 hectares of the Desert Park. We only operate out of 54 hectares. There are six or seven Aboriginal guides. One is a T2 and the rest are T1s.

Senator McCARTHY: Can you just explain the T2 and T1?

Mr Ah Chee : A T1 is a base-grade entry level into guiding. Then the T2 is the next level up from that. That is more of a supervisory role.

Senator McCARTHY: Is that men and women?

Mr Ah Chee : Men and women, yes. We have a breakdown of about 60-40, 60 per cent male and 40 per cent female.

Senator McCARTHY: So, roughly 60 per cent male?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes. Then we have another admin officer. We have a horticulturalist. The apprentice horticulturist will be starting soon. We have another Aboriginal person who we have on a physical level, because he has a disability. He is a fantastic worker and is there every day.

Senator McCARTHY: Again, just to explain, we are trying to understand retaining Indigenous people in the tourism industry, especially as part of the interface for visitor experiences. Do you have any advice that you want to share with the committee as to how you retain your Indigenous employment or do you find you actually have Indigenous employees who just stay for a little while and then go?

Mr Ah Chee : I think that is an area of interest for a lot of the people that work at the Alice Springs Desert Park. Mind you, there is a good environment there. There is a good culture, and having an Aboriginal director actually ensures that people feel a lot more comfortable in working in that environment. However, they still need support in terms of all of the other stuff that happens around keeping Aboriginal people within employment. We are a seven-day-a-week operation. There are rostered hours on. We expect our guides to turn up at 7.30 in the morning to open up, and that might be a Saturday or a Sunday

Senator McCARTHY: And they turn up?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes, they do.

Senator McCARTHY: So, you have a 7.30 start. When do you finish?

Mr Ah Chee : At 6.

Senator McCARTHY: What is the reason behind your success? You obviously have a good culture there, but are there other things like mentoring programs?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes. There was a really strong mentoring program that happened at the Desert Park. It was run by a person by the name of Jodie Clarkson. She put in a whole system of Aboriginal, she called it, cultural fitness. It was about continual reinforcement of Aboriginal culture. I gather within that format there was a framework for the employment of Aboriginal people to be a lot more sustainable and viable in the long term.

Senator McCARTHY: What was her name?

Mr Ah Chee : Jodie Clarkson.

Senator McCARTHY: And that is her specific focus, to keep people employed?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes. She no longer works at the Alice Springs Desert Park; she works with the Aboriginal Interpreter Services, and does fantastic work there, too. I think that sort of developed a framework and a culture for going forward. We have a very low rate of people ceasing employment in terms of the Aboriginal staff.

Senator McCARTHY: Of leaving?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Senator McCARTHY: When they do leave what are the reasons?

Mr Ah Chee : They have probably gone to another job or they have left Alice Springs.

CHAIR: Your retention rate is pretty good?

Mr Ah Chee : Our retention rate is really good.

CHAIR: Excellent.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you.

Ms O'TOOLE: I have been to your Desert Park, to the botanical gardens section, which was absolutely amazing. You obviously have some really good ideas on how you can expand, change and grow the business. How easy do you think it will be to attract, train and retain the staff that you will need in that growth period?

Mr Ah Chee : That is always the challenge, but I think we as an organisation or as a department really need to focus on how we put in measures to ensure that that succeeds and is viable. For example, I am in the throes of transitioning to retirement. I have already spoken to my executive director about that.

Ms O'TOOLE: Succession planning.

Mr Ah Chee : Yes, it is about succession planning. It was great, because the executive director said to me, 'Why don't you look at getting somebody who has got a degree, an Aboriginal person, and start working with them and looking at how you can mentor them into taking on the role as it goes forward?' Obviously, within government, you have to go through a process and you have to apply for it. You cannot just hand jobs out to people. It has to be merit based.

One thing I would say about the Northern Territory government is that there have been special measures applied across the whole of the government, which is fantastic. I gather it is how we put in systems and frameworks so that we can ensure that people feel like they have a career path with their employment. Certainly, with the Desert Park, it is a bit difficult. Sometimes you need a bit of a science background, especially in the zoological area, not so much in the horticultural space. But that could be seen as a bit of a barrier for local entry. We are trying to get local entry in now. That is through our traineeships. We have two young Aboriginal people starting through the Aboriginal employment program. They will be starting soon. I just received a text through that my ED actually approved my submission to put those two people on. So, that is good.

Ms O'TOOLE: How effective do you think it would be if you were to work with the high schools to really get the young people interested in the work that you do so that there is an interest in working in the park?

Mr Ah Chee : We work closely with the Clontarf program. I am also a committee member on the Girls Academy program, which is about keeping young girls at school longer. That is also really successful. We are limited; we do not have enough spaces to employ too many people. The thing that I would like to see is other Aboriginal groups utilising the actual Desert Park and then developing businesses and running businesses that run through the Desert Park, how they interpret our collections and getting access into our collections. I think that is an opportunity for younger people or people that are interested in starting up businesses, to use that as a base.

Ms O'TOOLE: Thank you.

CHAIR: It is fair to say that there is a really strong natural interest in creatures and country.

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

CHAIR: That in itself would be a great seller for the kids getting involved in it.

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: You have been involved, either directly or indirectly, with tourism for a long time in the centre. If you had a blank sheet, what would you do to get greater Indigenous/Aboriginal involvement in the tourism industry?

Mr Ah Chee : That is a good question. I do not think there is a lack of willingness from people. There are a lot of ideas and there is a lot of willingness to get involved with tourism. I suppose it is about utilising the experiences that are around and then working with those experienced people that have actually worked in the industry for a while to develop the confidence and the skills in an environment where it is related more closely to Aboriginal cultural learning rather than Western learning. And then, in some way, transitioning that somewhere down the line about how that might happen, and then involving the business side of it, which I think is critical.

I am a big believer that regional and remote Australia should be about yield, not volumes. People do not want to work seven days a week. They would rather work three days a week, but if they are selling their product at yield rather than volume I think that would be a lot more sustainable and it values the product. The only trouble then is that the product needs to be good. It has to be a quality product.

Mr SNOWDON: You have just referred to your staff turning up at 7 o’clock in the morning to open, and on the weekends, et cetera.

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: We heard yesterday about a company that I will not mention—it is in the Hansard if people want to look at it—that was operating in conjunction with Voyages. It stopped operating and when we asked Voyages what was one of the reasons they said that, effectively, they are a 365-day-a-year business. They need the people working with them to have the same attitude, as a 24-7 business opportunity, working on a constant basis. Reliability is extremely important. Is that an issue, do you think, for getting Aboriginal businesses involved with, say, some of the bigger companies providing Indigenous product?

Mr Ah Chee : I think tourism is a hard industry. It is an unforgiving industry and it does not pay a lot. I think that most operators now are really keen to develop products that are more fitted into their lifestyle. People are interested in Aboriginal culture, and everybody knows that. It is how we deliver that Aboriginal culture. It has to be of quality and it has to have sound integrity around it. But seven days a week is hard. For an operator to go there and operate seven days a week and only have one person turning up to go on a tour, it is pretty difficult. That is just the nature of tourism. Everybody faces that in tourism. Whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous you are going to face that problem.

Mr SNOWDON: When you started off, you talked about a lot of the businesses being sole operators.

Mr Ah Chee : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Obviously, that makes it difficult.

Mr Ah Chee : There is a really successful operator here, RT Tours, Bob Taylor. Bob is my cousin’s brother. He was a chef and he left the cheffing industry to work for a business that I was operating called the Aboriginal Art and Cultural Centre, where we trained 60 Aboriginal people in tourism. Now he runs his business very successfully. He has won an Australian tourism award in that short period of time. But he has a lifestyle. He runs his business so that he works six months a year and then another four months of the year he is travelling around the world. He has gone through the whole process of working and getting his experience.

Mr SNOWDON: What does his business do?

Mr Ah Chee : He does cultural tourism—food, country and culture. He does food. He does cultural experiences. He takes them out on country. It is out on Simpsons Gap, in the Parks and Wildlife reserve out there, and he is quite successful at it. He just runs small groups. I cannot see his business growing. I do not think he wants to grow his business. He just employs people. As to whether there is a business model such that, once you develop a business, then you can on sell it, Aboriginal people do not think like that. Maybe that is something that can be brought into some type of framework where people can think—

CHAIR: The longer term process?

Mr Ah Chee : Yes, long term. Are you building a product so when it gets to the end that is the end, because nobody else can take it over? We have seen things happen like that; there is no succession. Maybe the business was on sold and they just sat back.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed. We look forward to catching up tomorrow.

Mr Ah Chee : Yes, tomorrow at 9 o'clock.

CHAIR: We are looking forward to it. Thank you very much indeed.