17 January 2023

Tourism enterprise funds opportunities for First Nations youth

Respectfully embedding First Nations people and experiences across the visitor economy is a focus of the THRIVE 2030 Strategy. 

By diversifying its cultural offering and empowering First Nations youth, Worn Gundidj shows how a holistic perspective can benefit people and Country, tourism and visitors alike.

A strong foundation in First Nations tourism

Worn Gundidj has been running nature and culture tours at Tower Hill since 1992. Visitors explore the dormant volcano with a local Gunditjmara guide. They learn which Indigenous plants they can eat or use as medicine, and how to throw a boomerang.

In 2019, about 70% of Tower Hill’s visitors were international. The pandemic decimated this customer base. Worn Gundidj needed to diversify its offering for the domestic market.

‘Before COVID, we only did a 1.5-hour tour and that was it,’ Business Manager Clint Miller says.

‘Now we run cultural awareness programs, which are 2- and 3-hour sessions. There have been a lot of local corporate and health services groups coming to do them. Schools and teachers are also looking for these experiences.

‘We also run culture camps down here on Gunditjmara Country. We did 3 or 4 last year,’ Miller says.

Beyond tourism

Over the past 2 years, Worn Gundidj has expanded its business model beyond cultural tourism. It operates as a social enterprise. Commercial operations fund projects to support First Nations employment and self-determination.

The Worn Gundidj Indigenous Nursery cultivates 15–20 varieties of bush food plants. Bush Food Manager Kaleb Comolatti leads a First Nations team that handles orders for schools, councils and commercial landscapers.

A sweet blend of cultures

Worn Gundidj has built on this experience. It is working with Timboon Fine Ice Cream to produce Australia’s first range of bush food ice creams. Comolatti uses ingredients such as peppermint gum, Davidson plum and wattleseed to make specialty powders and syrups. Timboon uses these products to flavour the ice cream range.

Worn Gundidj will sell its ice cream in local supermarkets. It will also be sold in the Tower Hill Visitor Centre after its refurbishment. Sales will help fund the Cooperative’s many community projects.

Worn Gundidj is also working with local producers to make bush food pies and sausages.

‘What’s so good about ice cream and pies and these modern cuisines is that we’re blending these 2 cultural worlds together,’ Miller says. 

People are the key to success

Miller points out that the cooperative’s ability to continue its tourism and commercial enterprises depends on being able to hire well-trained First Nations staff.

‘You can’t develop a tourism industry, or any industry, without people,’ he says. ‘We at Worn Gundidj think we need to start investing in young people now.’

Miller has recently returned from a 2-week cultural exchange trip in Fiji. While there, Austrade helped Worn Gundidj connect with Australia’s diplomatic and trade staff.

Worn Gundidj is now looking at developing a scholarship program to foster cultural tourism. It will incorporate elements of on-Country experience, cross-cultural immersion and entrepreneurship.

‘The program would enable First Nations people to discover similar cultures and see how the cultural tourism industry works. We hope they will be inspired to come back and be business owners or work for bigger businesses in the cultural tourism sector,’ Miller says.

Worn Gundidj has been working hard to develop economically viable businesses that provide meaningful employment for First Nations youth.

‘The scholarship, the nursery, bush food ice cream – these are part of the solution to increasing the supply of cultural experiences and cultural products,’ Miller says.

Growing the visitor economy

THRIVE 2030 is Australia’s national strategy for the long-term, sustainable growth of the visitor economy.