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Canadian Travel Press
Issue Date: Jun 17, 2019
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TreadRight, Contiki launch initiative with KARI Foundation in Australia

A new story unfolds

BOB MOWAT

While Sarain Fox may have a new title – she’s now a partner – with the TreadRight Foundation, as she sees it, all it does is “just expands some of the work that I can do in a more official way and broadens the scope of our relationship – the possibilities of the projects that we can be involved in together and how I can advocate from the TreadRight side as well now, especially in [the area of the TreadRight Foundation’s] People pillar.”

The People pillar is one of three pillars defining the TreadRight Foundation’s activities around the world. The others include the Planet pillar and the Wildlife pillar. (https://www.treadright.org/ )

For Fox, TreadRight’s latest initiative took her to Australia, where the Foundation and Contiki Cares teamed up to launch their first artisan grant in Australia with the KARI Foundation’s aboriginal cultural unit.

On the travel side, the new program is designed to provide millennial travellers with immersive indigenous experiences to help them better understand and appreciate the culture and community that have existed in Australia for at least 50,000 years.

But there is a world beyond travel in this project as Fox points to the KARI Foundation’s “incredible work in Sydney [Australia] to advocate for child and family services.”

“They’re working directly with families to help inspire, advocate and provide tools for Aboriginal children to stay in touch with their culture and to be inspired and to have ways to access their culture,” Fox told Canadian Travel Press.

“When I was there,” she continued, “I learned that most inner city youth [in Australia] don’t have any way to access their aboriginal land, ceremonies, stories, arts – and all of that is really important and very similar to [the situation] here [in Canada], so providing those opportunities is really, really important.”

Magical experience
Clearly a believer in the dictum that experience is the best teacher, Fox joined Contiki’s 9-day Outback Adventure trek through the Australian Outback, featuring three nights in Uluru – a sacred site to the local Pitjantjatjara Anangu people – and said of the trip: “It was my first one [tour with Contiki] and it was a brand new [Contiki] itinerary and it went through the heart of Indigenous Australia. It was pretty magical and intense.”

Initially the new program has been rolled out for Contiki guests, but Winston Ma, spokesperson for The Travel Corporation (TTC) and the TreadRight Foundation, told CTP that it will also become available in the future for Trafalgar and AAT Kings and Trafalgar guests.

As for it being offered by TTC’s other brands, like Insight and Luxury Gold, Ma said: “We’ll see where this project will take us from an operational side of things. We’re starting out with Contiki because for Sarain, it’s her age group and, as well, millennials are the ones – as agents know – that are the more culturally curious. They’re the ones who are looking at history and for that immersive experience.”

He added: “We wanted to roll it out with Contiki first [because it adds] to the Aboriginal experiences that they already offer in Australia.”

As part of the new itinerary, the KARI Foundation will provide Contiki’s millennial travellers with an authentic cultural experience. They will be taught by Aboriginal artists, take part in dot painting, boomerang classes and learn about the symbolism entwined in Aboriginal culture.

Real bridge building
As Fox sees it, one of the most important things about the partnership with the KARI Foundation is that it allows tourism “to directly engage with the reclamation of storytelling, of art and of culture and that is real bridge building. It’s important for the locals to tell their stories and [that those stories come] from that source [the locals].”

She also pointed out that: “By partnering with the KARI Foundation, we have the opportunity to directly impact the ways in which travellers see and interact with the Indigenous population. Creating a program where local artisans and cultural practitioners can share their own stories and art forms, while creating vital economic freedom with the sale of traditional pieces.”

A critical piece in the partnership for Fox is the fact that the KARI Foundation program – like all other TreadRight Foundation initiatives – “exists with or without the tourist coming through,” providing “an amazing opportunity for locals to interact with the groups that are coming through,” as well as giving them ongoing access to the program.

“That’s how you Make Travel Matter,” Fox told CTP, “You engage directly with the locals and the organizations who are really doing that groundbreaking, front line work and you make it fun and enjoyable and also part of an enriched experience – an immersive experience – that’s what I think people are really looking for now.”

Searching for meaning
The fact that Contiki’s new program is targeted directly at the millennial traveller makes perfect sense, as Fox observes: “Millennials are asking different questions,” and they’re looking at “what travel means to them.”

She noted that millennials are also looking at “what it means to land in someone’s space and what it means to acknowledge who has been there and, perhaps – because of social media and because of that instant gratification that has been so accessible – being able to hear first-hand these stories, and maybe slow down a little bit, is actually something that a lot of millennials, including myself, are looking for – fully immersed experiences that are different, unique and informed by the local culture and the local environment. I think it’s a need that is definitely being informed by millennials, but I think that it’s everyone – there’s a shift in culture.”

Never assume
As for where agents fit in this shift, Fox told CTP that they “shouldn’t assume that the most exciting options should be the first option on their list” to be offered to their clients.

She said that the kinds of experiences offered by the KARI Foundation and the Storyboot School are experiences that are just as “ meaningful” and as exciting as a day cruise or other more traditional travel options, and retailers should put these cultural immersion experiences “at the top of their priority [list] and talk about them in a way where they’re [agents] actually inspired as well.”

And, while she admits that for agents, “it’s really easy to be afraid to talk about these kinds of experiences because you might not say it right; you might not communicate it right; there’s all of these ways that we’ve been really afraid to say the wrong thing, but I think taking the time to be knowledgeable about the program and to really understand it [is worthwhile].”

“If that means reaching out and asking questions or finding ways for them to be as immersed as they want their traveller to be as well, I think that will really help in offering these programs to their travellers,” she said, before adding: “I also think that travel agents should be inspired to create the change that their travellers are looking for.”

Finding common ground
As a journalist, Fox will tell you that she wants to hang out with the people who don’t have the same opinions as she has “because those are the people you want to reach.”

“If you’re just writing or talking to everyone who has the same exact opinion as you, of course, they’re going to be like that’s amazing. So, I think engaging with and having meaningful dialogue with people who have the exact opposite opinion as you is really where the magic is, if you can find common ground,” Fox said.

“In the context of travel,” she explained, “I think that’s really what group travel is, that you risk being in a place, in an environment surrounded by people who have a complete opposite outlook on the world as you and in that place you can find common ground.”

“If we do this in these micro ways everywhere, then isn’t that the goal to do this in the world and then we go home and we act that way in our community and we see our neighbour, who has [the opposite] opinions as us, as being someone we can find common ground with.”

Asked if this is her goal in her work with TreadRight, Fox told CTP: “Maybe it wasn’t my goal going in, but what I’ve realized is that if you are an advocate or activist in one aspect of your life, no matter where you go, that’s the work that you will do. I think in this particular case, when I was travelling, it was just so obvious that as soon as you start to engage with the communities then you become the source of knowledge.”

She explained: “So on our trip, everything to do with anything Indigenous came through me which was kind of funny, but also not surprising. It’s sort of the way it is now – when I go anywhere at all ever, I become the expert on this one aspect. And I’m always saying I can only speak from my particular opinion and my experience, but there’s so many ways to look at our stories and who we are and the work that needs to be done. But I do think that being a regular person that someone can come to and ask questions when we were travelling is really important for people to have that knowledge.”

Need for respect
Learning about and respecting the local customs of countries that travellers visit is a big part of the cultural immersion that’s included on these kinds of itineraries.

TTC’s Ma pointed out: “I just came back from Greece and all the women in our group had to cover up in the monastery because that’s just tradition there, but no one [who lives there] even blinks an eye because they grew up with it. So, travel really does open up doors. But you also have to respect traditions and local customs.”

As Fox sees it, while those kind of rules “have been given by non-Indigenous people, [now] the stories of how to behave come first-hand from the locals, and I think that is really profound because you respect in a different way.”

She continued: “Then it’s not just like a handbook of here’s the things you should and shouldn’t do – all of a sudden it’s the reasons why, and it goes back to the origin story that allows you to see the territory and the country as belonging to these people, not sort of as a secondary story line that’s being added to enhance the experience of travelling. You are actually in the territory and learning how to engage and what that territory means.”

From a Canadian perspective, Fox pointed out that: “I think we could do those things right here on our own soil as well to remind people and to engage with the sort of origin stories, and I think that’s where Millennials are pushing travel.”

Difficult questions
But there is a danger that in the rush to service the demand of travellers for culturally immersive experiences, some of those offerings will simply put a local culture on show, and objectify it, if you will.

As Fox told CTP: “The objectification of Indigenous culture is terrible, and I think that the way that you avoid it is that you invest in Indigenouse tourism. It has to be our own people telling our own stories; being involved in the protocol and what it looks like.” Fox told CTP.

She continued: “So for Contiki, there is a family and they run an incredible program called Pudakul [located outside of Darwin; https://www.pudakul.com.au] and their family has owned that particular piece of land forever. What they’re doing there – and it’s their entire family, it’s a husband and wife and all of their daughters – and they’re running their own tours. So, they teach you about the origin story. They give you a welcome to the country. And then they tour you through all of the history and culture that they can give you in two hours.”

“The reason that’s different,” Fox said, “is because they’re telling their own story. That story has never changed. Instead of you just going and looking at them, you’re being asked to hear and be a part of their community, and I think it’s interesting because when you’re there you are forced to acknowledge any biases you have because it is so obvious that these people are the experts and it is so humbling.”

Ma agreed, making it clear that for TTC and TreadRight, “it has to be local Aboriginal and Indigenous people leading and telling their stories, because it is their story and from an operational side, with TreadRight and with TTC in all of our brands, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

He continued: “Our partnership with KARI and Sarain is a perfect example of that in motion. We rely on Sarain and KARI to literally let us know what it is that they want to tell. What it is that they want to showcase for travellers from around the world because we can’t dictate that to them that this is what travellers want because it’s not our story to tell. They wanted to teach Dot painting on boomerangs because that’s their story, that’s their tradition that they wanted to showcase.”

What Millennials want
Based on Contiki’s own research, Ma told CTP that it is abundantly clear that the tour company’s Canadian customers want more cultural immersive experiences.

He points out: “We found that cultural immersive [experiences] for Millennials in Canada was the number one experience that outshone every single experience that we could offer them. It actually overshadowed culinary experiences. It overshadowed adrenaline experiences. It overshadowed the must-see, checklist. Time and time again, Millennials in Canada have told us, they want to see more culturally immersive experiences. They want to see and experience that local destination.”

As an example, Fox points to Pudakul which “created a business out of the demand for cultural immersive experiences.”

“They’ve been able to run [their business] for 15 years even though they were told when they started that they would never make it. I think that even their survival speaks [volumes] and now they’re running with Contiki and I’m sure that they’ll expand as well.”

But Fox also believes that the combination of the media, personal awareness and the changing times “have made the landscape of travel different” – there’s Indigenous representation everywhere; there’s local ownership and partnerships.

“Once upon a time, we didn’t have to think about these things and now there’s nowhere that you can travel where you can’t think about them. That means that as a result, the whole industry has to change to cater to this new ideology of truth seeking. And that’s not something to be afraid of, I think it’s something to celebrate and that it’s going to provide an entire new landscape and new avenues, and I think a lot more excitement for travel companies in the future.”

As for the take-away in all this, Fox told CTP: “I’m excited about our inherent responsibility – each and everyone of us – to make travel matter and to be excited about the impact that our travel can create in our own life and in our communities worldwide – that’s why I want to partner with TreadRight – that’s the real work. That’s the impact.”

Celebrating who we are

June is National Indigenous History Month here in Canda and June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day.

It is a time for celebration and there are loads of events planned throughout the month and on June 21.

“There’s going to be celebrations all over, from corner to corner of this country,” Fox said. “So in every major city, there will be Pow Wows and Gatherings. It’s a really great weekend [June 21] to check out a lot of Indigenous culinary experiences.”

She continued: “It’s a really amazing day to, if you’re really shy, but you’ve maybe always wanted to get involved and interact with your local Indigenous communities, then that’s the day [to do it].”

“It’s basically like our Open House,” Fox said. “Indigenous people all over the country are opening up their houses on June 21. It’s the day that we are celebrating us being here, but we also open it up to allow the entire country to celebrate who we are.”

Put down your phone

One of the questions that came up in the conversation with Fox and Ma was about the obsession of people to get that perfect selfie or Instagram post and how, in certain situations and at certain locations, it’s a behaviour that can be both disrespectful and downright dangerous.

Fox is quick to agree, but she also points out that one of the things “about tourism engaging with Indigenous populations” is that “inherently in so many situations, you’re asked to put your phone down; in so many situations, you’re asked to have both hands available to pick up a paint brush and to learn a story or to maybe even have to use your hands to listen. You can’t learn to bead a moccasin with your phone in your hand.”

On her recent Contiki trip in Australia, Fox notes that this problem took care of itself in a lot of situations.

“Every time we went into a local aboriginal setting, we were told we couldn’t take photos, and I think that that’s just such a strange concept for people and I found it to be a lot of fun watching [how] people [reacted].”

TTC and TreadRight’s Ma also pointed out that there’s a growing trend for Millennials to do a social media detox, particularly when they’re travelling.

And, while Ma clearly agreed there were negatives, he also pointed out that the ability of social media to spread knowledge around the world is definitely a positive.

In many ways, the Contiki Cares, TreadRight Foundation and KARA Foundation partnership follows some of the things that have made the Storyboot School at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto such a success and where not only the Travel Corporation’s tours include it on the itinerary, but it is used by local indigenous young people and non-Indigenous Toronto residents as well.

The success of the Storybook School makes Fox smiles as she points out that “the conversations that can happen, and do happen at the Storyboot School, bead by bead, stitch by stitch, in some ways are revolutionary.”

As for the KARI Foundation, Fox points out that beyond the Contiki and the TreadRight initiative, KARI “is doing incredible work for Aboriginal people right in the heart of the city [Sydney]. So, I think being exposed to that kind of work and experts in the field is really important.”

For those who want to learn more about the Storyboot School, check out the Nov. 5, 2018 issue of CTP at https://www.travelpress.com/subscription/IDEA/101518_110518_ctp/viewer/desktop/#page/8.

 

 

 

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