September 28, 2010

The 4WD Trail To Reconciliation

Outback 4WD tourism could become a bridge to reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians, new research suggests.

The growing desire of many non-Aboriginal Australians to discover and engage with their native landscapes at a deeper, more personal level is opening fresh opportunities for social, cultural and economic engagement with communities in remote regions of the continent, says Dr Damien Jacobsen.

Dr Jacobsen has recently completed an in-depth doctoral investigation of the experiences of 4WD tourists in the Red Centre, far west and Goldfields regions of Western Australia. The work was carried out in the former Desert Knowledge Co-operative Research Centre.

"Today, more and more Australians are seeking a deeper engagement with their own landscapes by taking 4WD tours. They are learning, observing, recognising things they've read or heard about, sharing insights and priding themselves on skills in handling desert conditions," he says.

"My research looked at very fine scale into those experiences, while they were actually occurring, so that we can understand more about this growing industry, why people participate in it, and the opportunities it presents."

Dr Jacobsen says that, during the research, he was deeply struck by the strong feelings held by otherwise urban Australians for the desert landscapes of the continent's interior, and the sense of discovering their own Australian-ness it brought them. At some level this seemed to echo the very strong attachment to country and self-identity held by Aboriginal people.

"It led me to consider what a powerful instrument for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people an activity like 4WD tourism could be "“ and how it could also help in closing the gap by providing new opportunities and livelihoods in remote communities."

However Dr Jacobsen also noted that actual interactions between 4WD tourers and Aboriginal communities of the remote areas remain relatively uncommon.

"There is still an avoidance of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal Australians, even in circumstances where Aboriginal people are the main presence, as is the case in remote areas.

"Personally, I find this troubling. It is not clear why we are avoiding one another "“ but research over the previous three decades has consistently shown that most Australians take little interest in tourism experiences based on Aboriginal culture or society. There could be many reasons for this, which remain to be studied."

Whatever the causes, Dr Jacobsen believe 4WD tourism offers scope for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to interact at many different levels "“ not just on the issue of culture, but also in many other fields of common interest or simply in the provision of tourism services such as fuel, camping facilities and food.

"I'd be delighted to see a time when people go on Outback food trails just to sample some of the extraordinary variety of bush foods Australia has to offer, in their natural setting. There's also talk of sporting tours and other activities."

With advances in technology as well as the high cost of overseas travel, 4WD tourism across remote Australia is becoming more popular, safer and more accessible to a greater of number of people, he says.

"This offers a healthy range of untapped opportunities for remote communities that can lead to new enterprises, livelihoods and social interactions," he concludes

Dr Jacobsen will receive his PhD at Charles Darwin University on October 15.
He is a Post Doctoral researcher with the new CRC for Remote Economic Participation.


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