Sharing Gumbaynggirr culture and knowledge of Country across the Coffs Coast has secured our region a place on the Global Green Destinations Top 100 List for 2022.
STOP PRESS: The Coffs Coast has been awarded third place in the Culture & Tradition category at the global Green Destinations Story Awards. As the only Australian story to make the finals this year, we are proud to receive this global recognition for our destination and award-winning Indigenous tourism experiences.
Read The City Of Coffs Harbour press release.
Every year international sustainable tourism organisation Green Destinations selects 100 outstanding Good Practice story submissions worldwide to inspire tomorrow’s travellers and today’s tourism professionals – and the Coffs Coast is one of only two Australian destinations to score a place on the prestigious list in 2022.
The region’s story entry, Two Path Strong, celebrates Aboriginal tourism on the Coffs Coast and the rich Gumbaynggirr culture that has supported the establishment of the first bilingual Indigenous language school in NSW, Australia.
Two Path Strong: strong in culture and strong in education
This is a story about how Aboriginal tourism on the Coffs Coast helped build the first bilingual Indigenous language school in New South Wales, Australia.
In times of environmental uncertainty and a desire to protect the planet’s natural assets for future generations, Aboriginal culture and language has the ability to connect First Nations people and non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the importance of caring for country.
The Gumbaynggirr Nation covers a large area of the Mid-North Coast, and the Gumbaynggirr People have occupied this land for thousands of years, forming one of the largest coastal Aboriginal Nations in New South Wales. They are historically renowned as the ‘sharing people’ – the land was so fertile and rich that they commonly shared food and other resources with people from neighbouring Indigenous Nations. Gumbaynggirr is not only the Nation but also the language group.
At the time of European arrival, approximately 250 Aboriginal Nations were present in Australia, encompassing around 500 separate language-speaking groups. Today it is thought that only 90 languages remain, with 70 of these close to extinction. Although officially listed as critically endangered, Gumbaynggirr is one of the surviving languages, spoken fluently by less than 30 people.
Learning an Indigenous language such as Gumbaynggirr can be integral in affirming and maintaining a young person’s well-being, self-esteem and a strong sense of identity. This is because Indigenous languages contain complex understandings of a person’s culture and their connection with their land. They don’t just carry information. Languages also link to a deeper connection to land, environmental sustainability, Dreaming stories, medicinal and historical experiences.
Good Practice in Culture & Tradition
In 2010, local Gumbaynggirr man Clark Webb established Bularri Muurlay Nyanggan Aboriginal Corporation (BMNAC) with a simple but BIG dream to ensure that Aboriginal communities, and in particular young people, are two path strong – strong in culture and strong in education. To achieve their goal of revitalising and re-imagining the education of Aboriginal children in the Coffs Coast region, BMNAC developed a collection of award-winning Aboriginal tourism businesses connecting visitors to language and culture and a popular cafe featuring native foods. All profits from these tourism businesses are directly reinvested into the corporation, creating a long-term sustainable financial income stream for the development of BMNAC education programs.
Today, visitors to the Coffs Coast can connect with Gumbaynggirr stories and language, see their art and taste some of their traditional delicacies with memorable award-winning BMNAC experiences. These include:
Wajaana Yaam Adventure Tours – Stand-up paddleboard tours where all guides are Gumbaynggirr or Aboriginal people with strong ties to Gumbaynggirr Country. On the 2.5-hour paddling tours held on three idyllic Coffs Coast waterways, guides share ancient stories about the landscape and introduce visitors to its bush tucker (Indigenous foods) and language along the way.
Giingan Gumbaynggirr Cultural Experience – Gumbaynggirr culture through stories, song and dance. The Experience is an award-winning cultural experience where visitors watch the Wajaarr Ngaarlu dancers perform and participate in a smoking ceremony. The Giingan Gumbaynggirr Cultural Experience includes an interpretative walk along ancient Aboriginal Country featuring Dreaming stories along the way.
Nyanggan Gapi Cafe – 100 per cent of the café’s proceeds go to BMNAC programs, including school learning centres. Visitors can try Indigenous flavours in a wattleseed brownie or lemon myrtle and mixed berry muffin, along with coffee made from locally roasted coffee beans.
In 2019 and 2021, BMNAC was awarded Gold in the category of ‘Excellence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tourism’ at the NSW Tourism Awards, the pinnacle of excellence in NSW tourism. Tourism Australia also recently recognised BMNAC’s Aboriginal tourism products as extraordinary cultural experiences.
From little things, BIG things grow
In 2022, BMNAC launched the first NSW school to teach children in both English and their local Indigenous language, The Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School. The school welcomed 15 inaugural students from kindergarten through to year 2 in 2022, with plans to grow, year level by year level, as the cohort progresses through to high school.
Clark Webb, now CEO of the Corporation, said plans for the school began before he was born, and he felt a sense of relief knowing that traditional teaching would be returning to the area. “Our community has been educating our children for many thousands of years, and we just had a little break for a couple of hundred”.
Staying true to BMNAC’s vision of ‘two path strong’, the school focuses on Gumbaynggirr language, knowledge of Country and Gumbaynggirr philosophies, with a priority on academic achievement.
BMNAC has also been successful in securing a grant from the NSW State Government to expand its Aboriginal tourism offerings, which will continue to financially support the future development of the Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School. These include a new Indigenous ECO Resort offering high-quality ‘glamping’ style pod tents camping within the Orara East State Forest, connecting with tours and activities in and around the Coffs Coast focusing on Aboriginal culture.
ECO Tourism Certification and Beyond
After 15 months of assessment by Ecotourism Australia, in 2021, the Coffs Coast was certified as NSW’s first ECO Destination. This certification establishes the region as a world leader in environmental tourism and proves the destination’s strong, well-managed commitment to living culture and traditions.
Aboriginal tourism operators face a unique set of cultural considerations in finding harmony between tourism, culture and the environment to achieve the appropriate balance between cultural integrity and responsiveness to market demands. Through the completion of the ECO Destination Certification, the City of Coffs Harbour has committed to supporting the local Aboriginal tourism sector to meet these opportunities and challenges.
BMNAC’s Aboriginal tourism experiences have been instrumental in developing a deeper understanding of Gumbaynggirr culture within the local community. This deeper understanding has allowed the corporation better to communicate its message and goals to the wider community and have a positive influence on the cultural identity of the Coffs Coast.
With the support of its Aboriginal tourism experiences, BMNAC has consistently delivered high-standard Gumbaynggirr language programs for 13 years and now employs more than ten full-time staff teaching Gumbaynggirr language across preschools, primary schools, various community groups and the Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School. These classes reach more than 100 young people and approximately 30 adults each week with language education.
For non-Indigenous students, learning a local Aboriginal language provides an insight into a better understanding of the world’s oldest living cultures. For the wider Coffs Coast community, BMNAC’s revitalisation and teaching of Gumbaynggirr Language encourages us all to reflect on the importance of connection to Country, and the relationship between First Nations people and non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Language in itself is a vessel for transmitting knowledge, ideas and shared meanings and is recognised as an important step towards a reconciled Australia.