Residents in the struggling Northern Territory mining town of Jabiru have been told their community will be saved and turned into a tourist town by during a visit by federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
The minister visited the town on Wednesday to sign a deal committing to the previously announced $216.2 million in funding over 10 years, with the NT Government kicking in another $135.5 million to improve infrastructure in the town and world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.
Jabiru is about three hours' drive from Darwin and has a population of barely 1000 but it used to be about 3000 when the nearby Ranger Uranium Mine was at its peak.
Ranger's owners Energy Resources of Australia stopped mining more than six years ago and have been processing uranium stockpiles since, but that is due to finish by 2021.
Between the mine's closure and falling tourist numbers at the neglected Commonwealth-operated Kakadu, the town would be in danger of dying.
However Kakadu is regarded as an iconic eco-tourist and Aboriginal cultural destination that should be commanding far more visitors, and this means Jabiru must survive.
International visitors in particular are down, plunging from almost 150,000 per year in the late 1980s to only 30,000 now. Total visitors to the park are down from almost 300,000 a year to about 185,000.
"What I can envisage is international tourists coming here for an experience that they've heard about but until now has been a bit challenging to achieve," Ms Ley told reporters.
"We want them to come here and to the Territory, a place unlike any other in the world."
Work has already begun to ensure "the biggest and quickest possible turnaround" for the region, she said, with $151 million of the Commonwealth's $216 million to be spent in the next four years.
Qantas Domestic CEO Andrew David welcomed the news, saying it would "drive visitation, both domestic and international".
The traditional owners, the Mirrar people, signed the memorandum of understanding on Wednesday.
The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, representing the Mirrar, commissioned the independent Jabiru Business Case report that claimed in the first year of new attractions and development projects, Kakadu visitation numbers will increase by nearly 100,000.
"That's what we need in this town, Jabiru changing into tourism with lots of tourists from overseas that can experience our culture and visit our country," said 19-year-old Mirrar clan member Simon Mudjandi.
Works include a visitor centre and Aboriginal cultural centres, road upgrades to boost year-round accessibility, better mobile phone coverage and new Jabiru infrastructure to serve nearby communities such as a power station, health clinic and education precinct.
ERA is facing a massive rehabilitation of the mine site that is due to be completed by 2026.
Its major shareholder Rio Tinto has agreed to fund the $800 million cost that ERA can't afford but insists on it issuing new shares to raise the money, diluting existing shareholders' wealth.
Australian Associated Press