Article Title

Transforming Tourists and "Culturalising Commerce": Indigenous Tourism at Bawaka in Northern Australia


There is currently an increasing interest in Indigenous tourism in Australia. Policies in Australia often use the rhetoric of sustainability, but position Indigenous tourism as a means for economic growth and development (Whitford & Ruhanen, 2010). This study shows that interpersonal relationships, cultural and social interactions, and learning are key to achieving the goals of Indigenous tourism providers or “hosts,” and to the experiences of tourists. This article explores tourist experiences of activities run by the Indigenous-owned tour company Bawaka Cultural Enterprises (hereafter BCE) in North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. BCE is an example of an Indigenous tourism business that aims to achieve social change by sharing of Indigenous ways of being, knowledges, and practices with non-Indigenous people during tours, whilst also ensuring that the business is sustainable and manageable for the family who runs it. In this sense, BCE’s tourism activities can be understood as an attempt to “culturalise commerce,” rather than commercialising culture (Bunten, 2010). In this article, we contribute to growing literature on transformative learning theory and tourism by considering tourists’ narratives of their experiences with BCE. We focus on the way in which tourists are transformed by an increased connection to their hosts and their country. We argue that BCE’s activities consciously introduce different ways of being to tourists and visitors. A growing awareness, understanding, and respect for these ways of being can inspire a sense of collective purpose and identity, and a deep emotional response to tours. Connection, however, is not always smooth and easy. Central to the process outlined in Mezirow’s (1978) transformative learning theory are encounters and engagements with other people and different and unfamiliar contexts, which may lead to disorienting feelings and experiences. We argue that the practical aspects of being at Bawaka, combined with the new skills, task requirements, and political realities that commitment to new ways of being bring, can be disconcerting and disorienting for tourists. The availability of spaces and processes to reflect on these points of disorientation may determine whether these experiences challenge and/or contribute to personal transformation. These factors highlight areas for further exploration in developing a theory of transformative learning in the Indigenous context, and a need for policies to move beyond a narrow focus on economic aspects of tourism to consider the social and educational aims of both tourism ventures and tourists themselves.


We wish to acknowledge Bawaka Country and Yolngu people both past and present. We also thank the Australian Research Council for financial support in undertaking this research.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

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