The scale of increased tourist activity at Uluru has been captured in a photo of a kilometres-long line of tourists snaking down the 340-metre red sandstone monolith.
A person at the site sent a photo to ABC Alice Springs, remarking on the mass of tourists hoping to scale the site – which is considered sacred by the traditional owners, the Anangu Aboriginal people.
“There’s cars parked for one kilometre on either side of the road leading up to the car park at the base,” the ABC listener said.
The decision to ban climbing from 26 October this year was announced by the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board in November 2017.
The national park encompassing Uluru has around 300,000 visitors each year.
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A sign at the site has long requested people avoid climbing the site out of respect of the wishes of traditional owners.
“We prefer that visitors explore Uluru through the wide range of guided walks and interpretative attractions on offer in the park,” a fact sheet produced by the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park states.
Tourism Central Australia CEO Stephen Schwer said the tourism industry is echoing that message.
“In terms of numbers of people allowed up Uluru, that is subject to if it’s too hot or too windy. But apart from that, we only ask people to be careful and safe. In the tourism industry, we would prefer if people didn’t climb the rock and that’s because of environmental, cultural and safety reasons.”
While some recent visitors have respected that request, others felt it is too restrictive.
In May, a 64-year-old man had to be flown to hospital for treatment after suffering a heart attack while climbing Uluru. Visitors attempting the climb have also died over the years, including a 76-year-old Japanese tourist last year in July.
He was reported to be the 37th death at the site since the data was first collected in the 1950s.
Growing piles of rubbish
Rangers at the site say there has been a continual battle with managing the environmental impact from the volume of tourists.
Andrew Thompson, ranger with the Central Land Council, said the volumes of rubbish discarded by the campers has been disappointing.
“It’s really disheartening, particularly for the rangers who are from this community, and this is their land.
“There is a lot of rubbish being left behind [by campers]. Particularly, when people are camping in an area that they shouldn’t be, the very least they could be doing is taking their rubbish with them – not leaving it behind.”
Mr Thompson said he also concerned about the danger to campers who are staying in areas that are not designated as camping grounds and actually subject to controlled grass fires.
“We’re conducting grass-fire work out on these Aboriginal lands. And we don’t want to see people in a place that is unsafe [for them during the grass=fires].
“When we go out we do our best to see if there are any illegal campers and tell them who we are, what we’re doing and get them to move on.
“But we do broad scale back-burning and we wouldn’t want to see people in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
The chairman of the park board, Sammy Wilson, cited the site’s sacred significance and the need to preserve the site against damage.
“It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland,” he said at the time.
“We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.”
Concerns have been mounting about the damage to Uluru from the volume of visitors climbing, camping and disposing of waste in the area.
“Whitefellas see the land in economic terms where Anangu see it as Tjukurpa. If the Tjukurpa is gone so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture. If we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years. We have to be strong to avoid this.”
The announcement comes after decades of discussion among traditional owners with Sammy Wilson saying the final verdict did not come easy.
“Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. Please don’t hold us to ransom…. This decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it’s the right thing to close the ‘playground’.”
Shifting strategy for tourism
Indigenous Studies and Tourism lecturer Dr Andrew Peters at the Swinburne University of Technology said the wishes of the traditional owners must be respected, although he acknowledges tourism revenue is likely to take a hit.
“It’s a real cultural shift that we’re looking for in Australia and that is going to take time. If the local traditional owners don’t want people walking on the rock then quite simply to me then we shouldn’t be walking on the rock – whether we’re Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people.
“It is not for us to decide what to do as outsiders to the area.
“And I think it is symptomatic of how we as a nation deal with cultural change.”
Sammy Wilson said the new tourism strategy will focus more on educating tourists about the cultural significance of the site, which will preclude climbing but still involves storytelling and appreciation of the site on the ground.
“Visitors needn’t be worrying there will be nothing for them with the climb closed because there is so much else besides that in the culture here. It’s not just inside the park and if we have the right support to take tourists outside it will benefit everyone.”
Dr Peters said the attitude of tourists towards the site showed a lack of cultural sensitivity and respect when compared to other sites like the Taj Mahal or domes of cathedrals.
“In the past with Stonehenge people would walk and touch the rock and the formations. And we have since discovered that is not an ideal thing. It is causing damage. So they have stopped that.
“Stonehenge is nearer a populated area. Uluru hasn’t had the attention in that sense that it deserves.
“I would put it in the same category. For example, in Melbourne, we wouldn’t let anyone walk all over the roof of the St Paul’s Cathedral because of its cultural and historical significance and to me it is a very, very similar thing.”
Uluru is one of only a few dozen places in the world – and one of only four in Australia – to have received a dual World Heritage listing.
The listings recognise the site’s outstanding universal natural values and cultural values.
Detailed cultural knowledge of the site is restricted because the area is sacred under Anangu men’s law.