Curtis Ferries is collaborating with the Port Curtis Indigenous community to offer cultural heritage tours around the stories of the Great Barrier Reef
Curtis Ferries is collaborating with the Port Curtis Indigenous community to offer cultural heritage tours around the stories of the Great Barrier Reef

Indigenous cruise to fill gap in Gladstone tourism market

FROM years of experience, a local enterprise is growing to address one of the biggest opportunities in Queensland's tourism sector.

Indigenous cultural tourism is big business and now Indigenous leader, Cherissma Blackman is leading the way to bring a unique cultural heritage experience to passengers on visiting cruise ships and visitors to the Southern Great Barrier Reef region.

Ms Blackman has been conducting cultural heritage inductions for industry for the past 10 years and now she's using her expertise to meet the growing demand from tourists.


Indigenous tour leader Cherissma Blackman
Indigenous tour leader Cherissma Blackman Anna Rogers

"I just thought there is a concept here and if I can start something off and make it manageable and easy to duplicate, I can do that along the Great Barrier Reef then give it back to the traditional owners to empower them," she said.

Although she is funding the venture herself, she says she isn't looking to make a lot of money out of the initiative, but rather develop a social enterprise that Indigenous people can take ownership of to help address high levels of underemployment and boost economic development among her people.

Ms Blackman first approached the Great Barrier Reef Marin Park Authority to find out if anyone was doing Indigenous tours.

"Nobody was...if you go to any other countries you can go on tours to see ancient traditions, so we want to share our stories too," she said.

"Our dreamtime stories don't end at the coast.

"The stories are of creation - how the Barrier Reef was created and how the islands were once joined to the mainland.

"The scientific interpretation of climate change and sea levels rising is our creation stories and the stories all match up."

She says in the past the stories were all kept "in-house".

"But if we talk about practical reconciliation, part of that is sharing our history as a nation.

"And when we say our cultural heritage, I'm not saying just ours (Indigenous), it's all of ours."

Ms Blackman says she's proud of the history on both sides of her heritage, which is deeply rooted in the Gladstone region.

Her ancestor, Fred Blackman was an Englishman from London who originally surveyed Gladstone.

In the late 1800s, Aboriginal trackers first showed him the shortcut through Blackman's Gap in the Boyne Valley.

Curtis Ferries owner, Adam Balkin has been running harbour cruises for cruise ship passengers but says from next year he will put that tour aside and run with the Indigenous tours.


Adam Balkin of Curtis Ferries
Adam Balkin of Curtis Ferries

"It's a market hasn't been tried in this area and we want to be the leaders," he said.

Mr Balkin was born and bred in Gladstone and ran water taxis in the harbour from 2008.

He took over Curtis Ferries in 2014 and says tourism will be the next big industry in the Gladstone region.

"This is about putting a different tour in the market," he said.

"I have a theory that the more tours and opportunities we have for tourists, the better the local industry will be.

"Whether its fishing charters or 4x4 tours, the more we have the more tourists will come.

"It's about Gladstone capitalising on what we have here and this is a great opportunity to showcase the traditions of the Aboriginal peoples.

"Some of the history is a bit full on - some Europeans have some big questions to answer.

"It's great news that Native Title has been recognised in this area."

Cherissma Blackman says the initial tour will be a two-hour cruise and in November, invited guests were taken on a 'test run' to gauge feedback.

The response was overwhelmingly positive.

"Eventually want to do half day tours to the surrounding islands, incorporating bush tucker trails, kangaroo and sea tucker," she said.

"People will love hearing our stories about how the Great Barrier Reef was formed and other stories the elders knew.

"When certain flowers bloomed or certain butterfly, they knew the mullet run or the salmon run was on and those out west would know to come into the coast.

"On Curtis when the sea curlew bird landed, the sea turtles were ready to come and nest on the eastern shores and a fire would be lit to tell the surrounding clans it's time to bring the boys.

"That was one of the traditions of initiating boys.

"Most people don't know the story of Mt Larcom...there's nothing here to say come and hear the traditional stories about the reef."

A pilot project taking scuba tours to Lady Musgrave Island off Seventeen Seventy is also being planned by Dr Kerry Blackman who is Ms Blackman's father and CEO of Gidarjil Development Corporation.

Dr Blackman is a proud Gurang and Gooreng Gooreng traditional owner and was an applicant for the Port Curtis Coral Coast and Gurang Native Title claim since 1997.

Dr Blackman recently received an honorary doctorate from CQUniversity for his leadership and commitment to Indigenous peoples for over 40 years.

Now his daughter, who has a law degree of her own, is continuing that commitment through tourism.

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