The Northern Territory government has unveiled an almost half a billion dollar blueprint to save Jabiru, the tiny township inside Kakadu national park, by turning it into a year-round tourism centre.
Jabiru’s future has been a source of worry for its residents and those who live and work in the world heritage listed park, due to its legislated closure as part of the shut down of the Ranger uranium mine in 2021.
The mine is required to return the land to its original state, but residents of the town, which was purpose-built for the mine but now also serves as a tourism hub, do not want it to close.
Governments have long promised the town would survive, but years of inaction have left plans until the last minute. Last week the NT government, alongside Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Mirarr traditional owners, unveiled its masterplan.
The plan proposed a mix of public and private spending on tourism and infrastructure projects for both Jabiru and Kakadu, including a new world heritage interpretive centre, and education precinct, a Bininj resource centre, and new accommodation offerings including a wellness centre, eco recreation hub and a five-star lodge with glamping.
It also proposed expanding Jabiru Lake to offer “croc-free, year round recreation activities”.
The cost of redeveloping Jabiru and elements required to support Kakadu national park was estimated to be $446m, including $256.3m in publicly funded projects.
The NT’s chief minister, Michael Gunner, flagged a “significant financial contribution” would be required from the federal government, which had responsibility for the national park, and from private investment.
The NT government pledged to keep essential, health, and education services in the town for another five years – two years beyond the closure date.
The plan’s introduction said it supported the Gundjeihmi and NT governments’ “aspiration of turning Jabiru into a nationally and internationally recognised tourism destination”.
It noted tourism numbers had significantly dropped since the heyday of the 1980s, when around 300,000 people – half of whom came from overseas – visited the park each year.
Now just 185,000 visit annually, including 30,000 of the higher-spending foreign tourists, although the exact numbers are disputed by some organisations.
The plan said big changes were needed to open up the major attractions, like Jim Jim Falls, Ubirr Rock and Gunlom Falls, which were among sites to be turned into “no go” zones by wet season waters each year and closed by park officials because of the crocodile risk. The solution was not as simple as sealing roads and building bridges, it said, although they were required.
“Industry feedback indicates that offshore wholesalers and travel intermediaries are less inclined to put Kakadu on itineraries as it is often only accessible for short periods of the year,” it said.
“Improving [Kakadu national park] requires a holistic approach. Marketing alone will not reverse the decline in visitation which has occurred.”
It predicted an extra 92,000 people would visit in the first year with all proposed new attractions, and that the vast majority of the proposed economic benefits would occur in Darwin, not in Jabiru.
The construction phase would generate $1.02bn in economic output, with $795.7m in Darwin, and would create 1,751 jobs in the NT, just 178 of which would be in Jabiru, it said. In the operational phase 125.7 full-time equivalent jobs would be created.
A sensitivity analysis found the privately funded and joint public/private projects would be “mostly able” to generate acceptable returns on investment, while none of the proposed publicly funded projects would “due to these being important public goods rather than commercial projects”.