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Island authorities eye new Indigenous tourism ventures on Wadjemup

David Prestipino -

Bouyed by a summer humming with visitors, Rottnest Island authorities believe Indigenous tourism will help attract new arrivals to the iconic WA destination.

Wadjemup is on the bucket list of most interstate and international visitors, while always attracting hordes of locals year round, and the WA government has earmarked authentic Aboriginal experiences as a key avenue to increasing visitors to the island next year.

The Indigenous tourism sector was one of four authorities believe will boost numbers to the car-free, pristine coastal haven, 33km from Perth. 

Expressions of interest are being sought from Indigenous operators for new recreational attractions, with hospitality, water activities and pop-up services in the Settlement other key focus areas.

Tourism Minister Rita Saffioti said experienced operators with exciting new recreational activities were wanted in 2024-25 after a bumper summer which saw 221,000 people flock to the island over December and January, with 800,000 tourists in total ferried to Rottnest throughout the year.

"Having this EOI open now is another fantastic opportunity for local businesses and for the island to expand on its range of existing offerings," she said.

Almost 750,000 people visit Rottnest Island every year, generating about $60 million in revenue, but the WA government wants visitors to stay a little bit longer on the island, with about 80 per cent of arrivals last year day trippers.

The RIA has long resisted new developments in part to preserve Rottnest's unique ecological and cultural aspects, but new and upgraded accommodation and hospitality offerings on the island in recent years have resulted in visitors staying more nights there.

Broader recognition of Indigenous history on the island is also under way, after statewide consultation resulted in the Wadjemup Project, encompassing cultural initiatives between the WA government and Whadjuk, Noongar and greater Indigenous communities to heal the impacts of Aboriginal incarceration and segregation on Rottnest from 1838-1931.

Traditional Owners and custodians will determine how their ancestors and cultural groups will be honoured on Wadjemup, where 400 of the 4000 Indigenous men and boys forcibly taken from other regions across WA died while imprisoned there, buried in unmarked graves.

WA Indigenous Tourism Operators Council CEO Robert Taylor, a Nhanda Yamaji man, said unique and compelling Aboriginal culture was of growing interest, adding Indigenous tourism operators were resilient and ready to meet increased demand from visitors in search of authentic experiences.

WAITOC research from 2021-2022 reinforced the significant economic benefits Indigenous tourism delivered ($63.8 million), as well as the flow-on economic and social benefits of employment and recognition of First Nations people, and connecting cultures.

"WAITOC has supported Aboriginal tourism since its inception and, in partnership with Tourism WA and the state government through the Jina Aboriginal Action Tourism Plan, has been accelerating the sector's growth over the past four years," he told National Indigenous Times.

New accommodation offerings, hospitality developments, better visitor experiences and cultural heritage initiatives are the drivers of RIA’s 2023-28 management plan, with Place Development Australia's $40m Lodge Wadjemup redevelopment, spearheaded by Peter Fogarty’s investment firm Pendulum Capital - the primary shareholder of the 109-room resort - soon joining the Prendiville Group's Samphire Resort and Discovery Rottnest Island's glamping eco-village as luxury and alternative island attractions.

More information on the Wadjemup Project can be found here.

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