Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is one of Australia’s premier tourist destinations and a driving force behind the Northern Territory’s $1.5 billion tourism economy. The awe-inspiring red monolith, the largest in the world, attracts climbers eager for a view from its 348 meter peak and trekkers who are keen to walk around its 9.4 kilometer base.
Pleas from local Aborigines, as well as new government restrictions, may put an end to both activities – a worrying prospect for tour operators and other local industries that rely on the natural attraction.
The Anangu, Uluru’s traditional Aboriginal guardians, have occupied parts of central Australia for more than 30,000 years. Concerned members of the group have installed a sign at the base of the 500 million-year-old sandstone formation
“Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under traditional law climbing is not permitted,” the sign reads – in six different languages. “As custodians, we are responsible for your safety and behavior. Too many people have died or been hurt causing great sadness.”
More than 35 people have died attempting to scale the giant red rock’s steep sides. A chain handhold, installed in 1964, is the only safety measure for thrill-seekers hoping to reach the top. An estimated 20 percent of Urulu’s 250,000 annual visitors attempt the climb each year – down from more than half in 1995.
“Parks Australia work closely with the traditional owners to manage cultural sensitivities and the board of the park is working towards closing the climb permanently,” reported the AFP. “The park's majority Anangu board want to be satisfied on three measures before they shut it down – that the proportion of visitors climbing has fallen below 20 percent, that adequate new visitor experiences are in place, and that the natural and cultural experiences offered are the critical factor for people visiting the park.”
After more than 15 cases of heat-related illness so far this year, the Australian government is also restricting tour operators that offer hikes around Uluru’s base. Based on the legislation, parts of the base walk must close if temperatures reach higher than 40 degrees Celsius the day before a tour is scheduled.
“The restrictions probably make our life easier because they're saying to travel around the roads in an air-conditioned vehicle . . . but that is not the experience that everybody wants,” said the operator of Wayoutback Australian Safaris. “If you minimize the experience, you impact the visitation numbers and it wouldn't take much to put some more infrastructure in place.”
Last month, the federally funded Indigenous Land Corportation (ILC) was forced to write down more than $62 million from the value of Ayers Rock Resort – a high-end tourism property set to employ roughly 200 indigenous workers. The government had hoped that the site will act as a base of operations for indigenous job training, but its potential remains unclear after the firing of two ILC board members and the re-assignment of top resort management.
“The resort's profits are not meeting interest repayments, let alone paying down the principal,” ILC chairwoman Dawn Cased told ABC News. Another ILC spokesperson added that the resort must improve marketing efforts in order to attract more visitors.
Australian casino billionaire James Packer said that Australia’s focus on natural attractions is hampering the flow of tourism dollars.
“If you look at the biggest tourism success stories in the world, they're man-made attractions. People do not want to spend all of their holidays looking at [Uluru],” he said.
Uluru, which is contained within the UNESCO World Heritage-certified Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, was returned to its Aboriginal owners in 1985. The name was officially changed from Ayers Rock to Uluru in 1993 in an attempt pay respect to the Anangu people.