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Norfolk Island is preparing to lure more visitors by embracing its dark past

Government House, one of the earliest and most intact buildings of its type remaining in Australia (Norfolk Island Tourism).

Government House, one of the earliest and most intact buildings of its type remaining in Australia (Norfolk Island Tourism).

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Norfolk Island might be a creepy place to visit based on its convict history. It’s on record that prisoners were starved and flogged until their bloodied skins fell away from their bodies, and you can still see remnants of the torturously tiny cell blocks in which they lived and the unmarked graves in which a dozen or so were dumped after a mass hanging.

Centuries on, it may be unsurprising to learn that a number of Norfolk Island locals say they’ve seen or felt the presence of ghosts from the island’s convict past first-hand. The question is: does ‘creepy’ translate to ‘cool’ when it comes to attracting tourists?

Norfolk Island Tourism Deputy General Manager Trina Shepherd thinks it just might, depending on how ‘creepy’ is done. And she points to Tasmania as a shining example of it being done right.

Eight years ago, Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art launched a winter festival based in Hobart called Dark Mofo. This is a 10-day, sell-out festival that celebrates the dark – both literally and figuratively.

There are night-time arts, music and food events, plus events exploring dark themes such as jealousy, murder and insanity and others that reference Tasmania’s convict past.

 
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There’s also a communal winter banquet, a gothic gala ball and a nude swim to mark the winter solstice and bring an end to the festival.

Nearly 1000 brave – and naked – swimmers plunged into Sandy Bay’s frigid waters this year. It’s fair to say that Dark Mofo takes creepy to a whole new level.

“These types of event have the power to ignite people’s imaginations, get them excited about a place and see history in a new light,” says Trina.

The festival, to me, is a great example of what we could do here on Norfolk Island to boost tourist numbers and engage people in our heritage stories and properties much, much more than we do now.


The festival, to me, is a great example of what we could do here on Norfolk Island to boost tourist numbers and engage people in our heritage stories and properties much, much more than we do now.

Trina Shepherd — Norfolk Island Tourism

“We might choose different activities for Norfolk, but in Tasmania they’re melding convict history with death metal; they’re showing cutting-edge theatre in heritage buildings. Anything’s possible when you think about it.

Really, the sky’s the limit.” Like Tasmania, Norfolk Island made it to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2010 for having an outstanding heritage site that represents the forced migration of convicts across the globe.

Within Australia there are 11 sites in total – one on Norfolk Island, four in New South Wales, one in Western Australia and five in Tasmania.

All told, the sites cover the 100-year period from 1788 to 1886 and attract thousands of visitors from around the world every year. Norfolk Island’s main heritage area of Kingston and Arthur’s Vale (KAVHA) alone draws tens of thousands of tourists every year and has become a central pillar of the local economy.

Trina explains: “Nearly all Norfolk Islanders are involved in heritage tourism in one way or another. Tourism is the only industry on the island. We don’t export. There’s no other way to make money – it’s our lifeblood.”

She says locals have a good record of coming up with new ways to engage tourists in the island’s fascinating heritage.

Some of the 19th-century Georgian buildings constructed during the island’s second convict period have been carefully upgraded, converted to museums and opened up for public access.

Year round, tourists can walk, bike or marathon race their way through the world heritage area. Access is free. They can also snorkel within a stone’s throw of a settler’s cemetery dating back to the 1700s and attend a Sunday service at St Barnabas Chapel – a stone church built for Church of England missionaries in 1880 from the remnants of Norfolk Island’s first jail.

There’s also Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama, a 360-degree artwork illustrating how Fletcher Christian’s Pitcairn Island descendants came to settle on Norfolk Island.

Every year tourists come to dress up and take part in Bounty Day, a major anniversary event in June. Increasingly, they take part in non-heritage-related activities too – activities like surfing, birdwatching, wine and cheese tasting and tramping.

Recent events, however, have forced Norfolk Islanders to step back and take a fresh look at tourism on the island.

In 2012 serious cracks appeared in the local economy as traveller numbers plummeted to their lowest levels in years, largely due to the global financial crisis.

Visitor numbers, which had been as high as 40,000 in 2000, dipped to around 22,000. Norfolk Islanders were fast losing the ability to pay their bills and make a living.

The Australian government stepped in, introducing a raft of reforms and – in a controversial move – bringing about an end to self-governance on the island.

As of 1 July this year Norfolk Island has an Australian- appointed executive director, whose role is to manage a year-long change process.

Over time, the island’s 1796 residents will begin paying tax and, in turn, receiving Australian social services and healthcare. There’s Aussie money on the table to upgrade the island’s roads, waste system, footpaths and piers and to further develop its heritage areas, specifically KAVHA.

Cascade Pier within KAVHA is currently being upgraded to the tune of $13 million to allow for more cruise ship arrivals.

“I think we all understand that the future relies on having a strong tourism sector,” says Trina. “And the Kingston area is the jewel in the crown.”

KAVHA is a 250-hectare world heritage area located on the island’s stunning south coast. It is home to a wide range of archaeological finds, convict ruins and heritage buildings dating back more than 700 years.

Evidence of East Polynesian settlement in the 13th and 14th centuries was found there in the 1990s, when archaeologists dug up parts of a marae, ovens, refuse pits and postholes, adding to much earlier discoveries of stone adzes and the remains of a canoe.

It is also home to a unique collection of Georgian buildings. Government House (one of the earliest and most intact remaining buildings of its type in Australia) is one example. Others include former military barracks and officers’ houses built in the 1800s.

On top of that, KAVHA is where 193 Pitcairn Islanders disembarked in 1856, all of them direct descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives.

Today, nearly 40 percent of Norfolk Islanders trace their ancestry back to those original migrants who went on to make Norfolk their home.

A draft report commissioned by the new Australian administration last year noted the future growth potential of KAVHA, but recommended a change of tack in the way it is funded, governed and run.

Among other things, it recommended that islanders look for new types of tourism product and find new ways to develop the area commercially without compromising its heritage, environmental and cultural values.

The Australian government is now seeking expressions of interest from locals outlining what this might look like in practice. To set the tone, government minister Gary Hardgrave has said he’s after “ambitious and creative use of the unique assets within KAVHA”.

So, does this mean that Norfolk Island may soon host its winter festival on the grounds of a world heritage site, possibly themed around its own creepy convict past?

Who knows, says Trina. It’ll depend entirely on what the community wants and the ideas that come forward.

The good news is that tourist numbers are back up to healthy levels (26,000 at last count – a figure that Trina’s team is keen to boost by up to 10,000 through a rebranding push in the coming year).

She believes it’s exciting times for the island’s tourism sector and the island as a whole.

“If we want more people to visit Norfolk Island and see our amazing world heritage resources, we have to change the way they experience heritage as tourists. Young people aren’t interested in history for history’s sake, like previous generations have been. They don’t want to wander around old ruins.

“We have to understand the old ways of doing things just don’t cut it any more. People want to travel. They want to be engaged. But they want entertainment and excitement too,” she says.


Norfolk Island’s key settlement periods

1300-1500 Polynesian settlement

1788-1814 First colonial penal settlement

1824-55 Second colonial penal settlement

1856-now Pitcairn settlement.


This story was first published in Heritage New Zealand magazine.

The writer would like to thank Norfolk Island Tourism for hosting her.