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Aboriginal people and tourism

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Over a quarter of Northern Territory’s population are Aborigines, a far higher proportion than anywhere else in Australia, and half of the Territory is once again Aboriginal-owned land, returned following protracted land claims. As a tourist, however, meeting Aboriginal people and getting to know them can be difficult. Excepting the national parks, most Aboriginal land is out of bounds to visitors without a permit or invitation, and most communities and outstations, where the majority of Aboriginal people live, are particularly remote even by Territory standards.

The result is that the most visible Aboriginal people you see in the main towns of Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs are those living rough on the streets, a sad sight that shows little signs of changing. Despite many years of intervention policies, limited progress has been made in alleviating the social problems rife in Aboriginal communities from domestic violence and child abuse to alcoholism and substance addiction. Aside from these bleak realities, for those interested in getting to the heart of the enigmatic Australian Outback and meeting indigenous Australians, the Territory offers memorable experiences, providing an introduction to a land that’s sustained a fascinating and complex culture for at least sixty thousand years. Some Aborigines have a new-found pride in their culture and identity, demonstrated in superb museums, successful Aboriginal tourism projects, and a flowering of indigenous art, media, music and writing.

The most meaningful contact for the short-term visitor will be from an indigenous tour guide or a knowledgeable non-Aboriginal guide. Always choose tours run by Aboriginal-owned companies. Keep in mind that most tours will only scrape the surface of a complex way of life – secrecy is one of the pillars that supports traditional society, so what you’ll probably learn is a watered-down version from people reluctant to give away closely guarded “business”. But if you’re content to learn about the meaning of the country for Aborigines, about languages, bushtucker, bush medicine and Dreamtime stories, going on one of these tours can be an enriching experience.

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