How to be an ethical traveller in Aboriginal Central Australia

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In the rush of excitement to see sights, we can forget to acknowledge the sanctity of  a place. This is certainly the case in Central Australia, where most of the top tourist magnets, like Uluru and Kata Tjuta, have significance anchored in ancient Aboriginal cultures. These days the traditional Aboriginal caretakers of many sacred sites do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with tourists looking to check things off their 'to-do' lists.

An example of this is the debate about climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock). Ignoring advice to the contrary – for safety, environmental and important cultural reasons, including that the local Anangu Aboriginal community has never condoned it – thousands of visitors go up. Would you climb the main altar of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome just for the view? It makes no sense. As part of a new management plan, the Uluru climb is slated to be closed.

Now, while no one would suggest that visitors dig into such complex and often contentious politics, in the interest of sensitive and courteous behaviour, I did, and I'd like to spotlight initiatives that I believe make an effort to do things 'right' in Central Australia.

Going on tour

Despite the heavy concentration of stunning and accessible sites of Aboriginal importance in Central Australia, the number of tour operators that focus on Aboriginal culture or work with Aboriginal communities is small.

In and around Alice Springs, as well as throughout the Central Australia region, Central Aboriginal Experiences (CAE, freecall 1800-011-144 in Australia) works with Aboriginal-owned tourism businesses. It functions as the area's hub for indigenous tourism, helping direct attention to small, ethical operations like RT Tours Australia's Aboriginal-led experiences that emphasise bush foods (rttoursaustralia.com.au); Jungala one-day culture walks with an Aboriginal guide (www.jungala.com.au); and Rainbow Valley Cultural Tours visits to Rainbow Valley with a traditional custodian (www.rainbowvalleyculturaltours.com).

For self-starters, the design of the unforgettable and instructive Alice Springs Desert Park, located on traditional land just outside of town, was inspired by the Arrernte worldview that unites desert plants, animals, people and land.

From Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Yulara, the adjacent purpose-built tourist resort, Uluru Aboriginal Tours works with Inspiring Journeys with local Anangu hosts. SEIT Outback Australia also runs an all-day, immersive and culture-centred trip to Cave Hill.

Small lizard at the Alice Springs Desert Park. Image by Mike Hermary. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Buying Aboriginal art

Art is probably the most visible manifestation of Australian Aboriginal culture. Australian Aboriginal art is the longest continuing art tradition in the world and an economic mainstay of the Aboriginal community.

When buying Aboriginal art a bit of research will help you make informed and ethical decisions. Ahead of travel in the Red Centre, consult Desart (www.desart.com.au), the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Craft Centres. Desart supports and represents Aboriginal-owned art centres (see here), all of which are vital parts of community life, especially in remote Central Australia. They are also arguably the most ethical places to buy Aboriginal art.

In-town Alice Springs art centres include Mwerre Anthurre Artists (Bindi) (www.bindiart.com), Tangentyere Artists (www.tangentyereartists.org.au), Tjanpi Desert Weavers (www.tjanpi.com.au) and Yarrenyty Arltere Artists. At Uluru, look in the Cultural Centre for the Maruku Arts (www.maruku.com.au) and Walkatjara Art (www.walkatjara.com.au) stores.

All art centres welcome visitors, but it is always best to call ahead. Most are also represented in Alice Springs by Talapi (talapi.com.au), a central gallery that promotes the artists and artworks of Desart members.

'Pavement art' by Scott Sandars. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence

For more helpful information about purchasing Aboriginal art, check out the Indigenous Art Code (www.indigenousartcode.org), a system to preserve and promote ethical trading in indigenous art, and read the short Purchasing Australian Aboriginal Art, A Consumer Guide (in PDF form here) and Indigenous art and craft (download it here) brochures.

On a first visit to any new place, many people are content with superficial discovery. Short on time but long on enthusiasm, they are too happily wowed by fleeting glimpses of famous sights to do more than grab at the easiest or cheapest way to take them in. While I understand the reflex, I lament how the excited rush to see can eclipse any sense of how to see 'right.' Yes, 'right' is a loaded word. But so are the situations surrounding some of the world's greatest natural landmarks.

Ethan Gelber is a writer/editor of long standing with a passion for responsible, sustainable and local travel. Follow along @thetravelword.