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Cairns’ Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park shuts for good as COVID wreaks tourism havoc

January 19th, 2021 | | Tourism

A pioneering Far North Queensland Aboriginal tourism attraction, which was once the scene of a controversial visit by the Queen, has become the latest COVID-19 victim and will close its doors for good.

Key points:

  • Tjapukai was struggling financially before the COVID-19 pandemic hit
  • The tourist attraction has educated visitors about Australia’s rich Indigenous culture since opening in 1987 
  • About 65 staff have lost their jobs as a result of the park’s closure

The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns, which has educated and entertained more than 3 million people over the past 33 years, was always heavily reliant on international tourism.

When the pandemic started, it was forced to go into caretaker mode and the Tjapukai board has now confirmed that the park will not reopen.

“The closure of Tjapukai wasn’t a decision made lightly or quickly,” a statement from the board said.

Play Video. Duration: 1 minute 36 seconds
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park co-founder ‘disheartened’ by its closure

“We have been seeing declining patronage for many years.

“Tjapukai has considered various options to continue to revitalise and grow the operations, however the business has continued to remain marginal in the face of a challenging tourism market.

“COVID-19 has compounded these economic challenges.”

An Aboriginal main in tradition paint holds a decorated shield as he stokes a fire surrounded by rocks
Tjapukai employed local Djabugay people and showcased their culture and tradition.(Supplied: TTNQ)

Tjapukai employed about 65 people, the vast majority of them Indigenous, and it claimed to be the largest Indigenous employer of any tourism enterprise in Australia.

Tourism Tropical North Queensland (TTNQ) chief executive officer Mark Olsen said the industry’s thoughts were with the park’s staff.

“This will be a really difficult time for the staff, both past and present, who have made an enormous contribution to showcasing Indigenous tourism over the past 33 years,” he said.

“The closure of Tjapukai is a great loss to the tourism industry as it is a foundation product that set the benchmark for Indigenous cultural tourism experiences in Australia.”

A modern brown and grey building with the words 'Tjapukai where Australia begins' on it
The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns was open for three decades.(ABC Far North: Sharnie Kim)

Co-founder ‘absolutely gutted’

Tjapukai was founded in 1987 as a one-hour play in a rented basement in the main street of Kuranda, west of Cairns. 

In 1996, the troupe moved to its current site closer to the city and expanded to include a cultural village, artefact museum, restaurant and retail gallery.

Co-founder David Hudson said he is “absolutely gutted and disheartened” by the board’s announcement that the park will not reopen its doors.

An Indigenous man with curly, shoulder-length hair, wearing a bright Indigenous print t-shirt, leaning against a rock wall.
Tjapukai co-founder David Hudson says the centre was “born out of a need to preserve culture” and will be “very, very sadly missed”. (ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

“Tjapukai was born out of a need to preserve culture and educate people about who we are as Indigenous Australians,” Mr Hudson said.

“Generations have come through there and it was great for the young kids to come through and be proud of who they were, be proud of their identity.

“And it was a great place for people to go out and experience something fair dinkum, so it will be very, very sadly missed now.”

Mr Hudson, who toured North America, Europe and Asia with the attraction’s dance troupe, said the park had helped promote the culture of Australia’s First Nations people to the world.

“We opened the gates for so many, across so many different platforms,” he said.

“We were educating people that we (Australians) were more than just blond-haired surf boys, kangaroos and Kit-Kats.

“We were saying we have an Indigenous culture that’s alive, that’s well and healthy, and it’s in our own backyard and I wish more Australians would be proud of that.”

The closure decision follows a recent multi-million-dollar investment by IBA, which was yet to see a return.

A photo of one of Weika's young trainees Alfred Hunter dancing while smiling at the camera
Alfred Hunter has also been a performer at the park and learned many skills from Phillip “Weika” Oui.(ABC Far North: Anna Hartley)

In the 2020/21 Budget, the Federal Government announced it would provide Tjapukai a share of $19.8 million in COVID-19 recovery funding over two years.

Former Tjapukai director Ken Chapman said while the tourist attraction was struggling financially pre-pandemic, uncertainty over the future of tourism was the final nail in the coffin. 

Source: ABC

Sourced by Mike Barrow