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Federal Labor recommits to building multi-million-dollar Kakadu tourist centre, four years after election promises

Both parties pledged funds to help revitalise Jabiru during the 2019 election campaign. (Supplied: NT Government)

The federal government has recommitted to funding a world-class, multi-million-dollar visitors centre in Kakadu National Park, four years after it was promised during an election campaign.

Both Labor and the Coalition committed to spending more than $200 million on Kakadu – parts of which are badly struggling with ageing infrastructure and a worsening feral animal boom – prior to the 2019 election.

The cornerstone of those funding promises was a new visitors centre on Lake Jabiru, to cost between $20 and $60 million, to help transform tourism in the region.

The centre has so far not materialised.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Justin O'Brien said the lack of any obvious movement towards building the new visitors centre was of "great disappointment" to Mirarr traditional owners.

"We have placed a lot of hope in the world heritage visitors centre," Mr O'Brien said.

"It's considered something of a game changer – a new product to better orient visitors to the Kakadu experience. That funding is part of the unspent dollars that need to come across."

Only a small portion of the federal funds pledged to upgrade facilities across the park has been released. (Four Corners: Harriet Tatham)

Northern Territory Tourism Minister Nicole Manison blamed the former Coalition government for delay in returning the park to its "glory years" of the past.

"The federal government, over years, did leave it too long, but now it's about rejuvenating Kakadu National Park for a strong future," Ms Manison said.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the project was "absolutely" on her radar and the promised funds will be delivered. 

"The funding is available for the visitors centre," Ms Plibersek said.

"But this is one of those areas where we do need really genuine partnership with traditional owners about the location, the size, the kind of information that would be presented to the public about this beautiful natural environment, this important cultural heritage that we see in Kakadu."

"That's something that has to happen very sensitively and with a lot of cooperation and conversation."

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says the government is working to repair relations with Kakadu's traditional owners. (AAP)

Environment Minister says Kakadu relationships are healing

It comes as the federal government continues to try to mend bridges with traditional owners in Kakadu, after years of tension.

In 2020, there was a total breakdown between Kakadu traditional owners and Parks Australia, which culminated with the sudden resignation of the agency's director of national parks.

Traditional owners have also been embroiled in a court case with Parks Australia over the damage of a sacred site during construction work at the spectacular site Gunlom Falls in 2019.

A finding that the Commonwealth cannot be held liable for the damage is being appealed to the High Court, which has to decide whether or not to grant leave.

The claim of crown immunity and the Commonwealth's approach to the case had disappointed many traditional owners, according to the head of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA).

"While efforts are being made to restore the joint management relationship at Kakadu, custodians continue to be concerned that sacred sites remain vulnerable to damage," Dr Benedict Scambary said.

Ms Plibersek said the relationship between Parks Australia and traditional owners had improved but acknowledged the issue around Gunlom Falls remains "sensitive".

"It is a very difficult and sensitive issue … I accept that there's a lot of repair to do," she said.

The popular spot, which has previously been featured prominently in Kakadu tourism campaigns, has been closed to tourists throughout the course of the dispute.

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