Outback Australia: Disappointment in the Tiwi Islands

When visiting a colonized country, it is difficult to ignore many of the social and economical inequities that exist. Australia is no different. Much like the United States, Australia’s history of dealing with the indigenous peoples is checkered at best and downright awful at worst. Native cultures have been marginalized, victimized – read up on the Stolen Generations – and subjected to both institutionalized and socialized racism for centuries. The climate has changed in recent years thanks to activist groups and improved government policies, but the poverty and stigmas that past practices created still linger. Cultural tourism has provided new sources of income for many aboriginal communities, but that often leads to commercialization and exploitation. And nowhere is that more evident than on the Tiwi Islands.


Located a mere 80km north of Darwin, the Tiwis are comprised of Melville Island and the smaller Bathurst Island. The local Tiwi people are culturally distinct from the native people of mainland Australia. Ferries shuttle passengers to and from the islands via Darwin, and charter flights make the trip in about 30 minutes. And the only way to tour the islands is via Tiwi Tours, which is owned and operated by the Tiwi Land Council (though they lease the operation to Aussie Adventure Holidays, a privately-owned venture).

I visited Bathurst Island with Tiwi Tours and was cautiously optimistic before the trip. I’m always skeptical of organized cultural tours as they often end up being forced reproductions of ceremonies that result in me feeling more guilty than educated. The last thing I want as a traveler is for people to pander to me or disrespect their traditions for the sole purpose of entertaining visitors. Whether the operation is owned by the local people or not, the resulting experience is more exploitative than authentic. Buoyed by the knowledge that all the guides on Tiwi Tours are of Tiwi decent and that we’d be speaking with island locals over morning tea, I boarded the propeller plane and enjoyed the views on the way to Bathurst Island.

Upon landing, we met our Tiwi guide, Trevor, and our white driver, Rod. We boarded our bus and proceeded into the island’s interior. Our first stop was the local history museum which houses artifacts of the island’s rural past and Catholic missionary experiences. Trevor did an adequate job of explaining both the Dreaming of the Tiwi people, as well as their dances, hunting practices and general history. Our time there was short, if not rushed, and it was difficult to absorb the abundance of information.

It was at morning tea, however, that the tour revealed itself as the faux cultural experience I had feared. We met several Tiwi women who explained the various dances that are used to celebrate auspicious events. They then demonstrated these dances in front of the tour group in celebration of nothing more than the attendance of another group of paying customers. We then watched as they painted their faces and those of their young children while offering limited explanation of the nature of the custom. The vast majority of tourists looked on in amazement while I struggled with feelings that ranged from unease to guilt.

Watching the women and children dance and sing for our amusement, with limited educational or cultural content, was beyond inauthentic. It was pandering. The same can be said for the myriad art galleries that are part of the tour. Guests are encouraged to purchase the works of local artists, though it seems that any Tiwi who wants to come to the art centers and paint a picture can be called an artist. By no means am I diminishing Tiwi or aboriginal art, but I have a hard time believing that anyone who picks up a brush is automatically an artist telling a story. Many of the artists are simply impoverished and unemployed locals hoping to make some money from tourists. Several of the installations are managed by whites, which only emphasizes the exploitative nature of the experience.

A positive highlight of the tour was the visit to the former Catholic mission. The church was a unique hybrid of Tiwi and Catholic liturgy and that is evidenced by the ornamentation that is evident in the structure. Figurines of Jesus sit next to depictions of Tiwi Dreaming spirits. And the church complex is also home to a fascinating piece of WWII history. The radio shack on the site was used by the priest to warn Darwin of the first incoming Japanese war planes. The planes flew directly over the Tiwis and the priest attempted to warn the mainland of the impending invasion. His calls for vigilance were ignored, however, and Japan struck a deadly opening salvo on Australian soil.

Overall, Tiwi Tours strive to both educate and bring much needed income into the struggling communities of Bathurst Island. However, the emphasis is clearly on the latter at the expense of the former. While I appreciate their desire to operate a revenue-generating venture in the Tiwis, the cultural costs seemed excessively steep. I would much prefer to attend several discussion groups with locals and be invited to attend an authentic ceremony than have contrived activities thrown in my honor simply because I had a ticket granting admission.

As always, cultural tourism can often have positive intentions that are lost in the execution. Tiwi Tours does seem to have the best interests of the people and history in mind. But more effort is needed to avoid turning Bathurst Island into a depressing Epcot Center version of its former self.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.