The issue of banning tourists from climbing Uluru has come to the fore recently, with the Board responsible for managing Uluru recently deciding, after a consultation process, not to ban the climb in the short term. However, they will continue to assert the traditional owners’ wishes that visitors not climb and will develop new tourist experiences for the National Park. Here are some straightforward answers to questions you might have about this issue.
1. Why did the issue of preventing tourists from climbing Uluru come up again?
The issue of whether or not tourists should climb Uluru has been the subject of debate for many years, especially since it was handed back to the Traditional Owners in 1985 and they were given a say in its management. For many years the advice to visitors has been that the Traditional Owners would prefer people not to climb because of the rock’s cultural significance. The topic has come up again recently because the Director for National Parks released a proposal to ban the Uluru climb for safety, cultural and environmental reasons. The proposed closure was part of a ten year draft plan for the management of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
After a period of consultation on the proposal, the Plan of Management for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was released in January 2010, with the Board announcing that Uluru would remain open to those who chose to climb for the short term. The new management plan proposes conditions for the climb’s future closure. These conditions include the creation of new tourism experiences in the park for visitors, a significant decrease in the number of people wanting to climb (from the current 38% of visitors to less than 20%), or the climb no longer being the major attraction for visitors. The plan re-emphasises the importance of visitor’s respecting the traditional owner’s wishes by not climbing Uluru.
2. Who wants tourists to stop climbing Uluru?
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Park Management Board proposed preventing tourists from climbing Uluru for cultural and safety reasons. This Board represents the view of the majority of Traditional Owners. Also, many tour operators and environmentalists suggested that the climb be closed. The Australian Tourism Export Council, a peak tourism industry body, stated that the climb should be closed out of respect for the wishes of the Traditional Owners. APT Tours, one of the biggest tour operators in the National Park, also wanted the climb closed.
3. Who are the Traditional Owners of Uluru?
The Traditional Owners of Uluru are the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal people from the Western Desert region of Australia, who refer to themselves as Anangu. Anangu have lived around Uluru for over 10 000 years. The traditional law of Anangu is called Tjukurrpa and it is the foundation of their culture. Like religions anywhere in the world, Tjukurrpa provides answers to important questions like the creation of the world and the rules for behaviour and for living together. Tjukurrpa explains how to care for country and society by doing the right things.
4. Why is Uluru so significant to the Traditional Owners?
Uluru is a highly significant site in Tjukurrpa, where ancestral (or ‘Dreamtime’) beings, in the form of humans, plants and animals, travelled across the land creating the world as we know it today. These beings left their marks in the forms of hills, rivers and other geographical features. The activities and travels of the ancestral beings are told through stories, sacred sites and ceremonies, and they explain the rules for social life and living on Country. A number of important creation journeys coming from the north, south, east and west meet at Uluru and explain its physical shape and form. Because Uluru features in many Tjukurrpa stories, it is very important to a number of central Australian Aboriginal peoples, not just the Traditional Owners of Uluru.
5. Why do the Traditional Owners want people to stop climbing Uluru?
There are various reasons why the Traditional Owners want people to stop climbing Uluru. The tourist ‘climb’ follows the traditional route taken by the ancestral Mala men when they arrived at Uluru. The Traditional Owners do not climb the rock out of respect for the great cultural and spiritual significance of the Mala story. Because of the importance of this story, the Traditional Owners ask that visitors do not climb the rock either. This request from the Traditional Owners is similar to priests asking people not to go behind the altar in a church or Muslims asking people not to wear shoes inside a mosque.
Under traditional law, Anangu are obliged to protect and maintain their sacred sites and stories so that they may be passed down to future generations. Anangu are concerned that their traditions and culture will be lost through damage caused by the number of tourists climbing the rock. Another reason why the Traditional Owners want people to stop climbing is that under traditional law, Anangu also have a responsibility (duty of care) to look after visitors to their country. This makes it difficult for them when visitors are hurt, especially when they are in a sacred area.
6. Do all the Traditional Owners want people to stop climbing Uluru?
There are some Anangu Traditional Owners who may not mind tourists climbing the rock. However, as mentioned above, the majority of Traditional Owners would prefer to see the climb closed.
7. Is the climb dangerous?
The climb up Uluru can be dangerous. At 346 metres, Uluru is higher than the Eiffel Tower. The climb is very steep and can be slippery. At any time of the year it can be hot and wind gusts can hit the summit or slopes. People have died while attempting to climb Uluru, and many others have been injured. Park rangers regularly rescue tourists undertaking the climb. Some suffer heat exhaustion, dehydration or broken bones. Some people panic halfway up the rock and need to be helped down.
8. Do the Traditional Owners still live in the area?
The Traditional Owners of Uluru still live in the area and maintain a continued connection to the land and their culture. Today, there are about 4 000 Anangu living in small communities on their traditional lands. These communities include Ernabella, Docker River and Mutitjulu.
9. Doesn’t Uluru belong to all Australians?
Many people feel that Uluru is a national icon and that all Australians have a ‘right’ to climb it. However, the rock and surrounding lands are legally owned by Anangu Traditional Owners who have lived around Uluru for many thousands of years. Anangu are glad to share the beauty of Uluru with visitors, and also to share an understanding of their cultures and traditions which might generate the kind of respect that will stop visitors wanting to climb the rock.
10. Isn’t it bad for the Australian tourist industry to tell visitors they can’t climb Uluru?
A review conducted in 2007 for the Director of National Parks found that 98% of people would not be put off visiting Uluru if they were not allowed to climb the rock. This is because most visitors to Uluru preferred activities such as visiting a cultural centre, listening to an Aboriginal guide and experiencing Aboriginal art as compared to climbing the rock. Because they want to ensure visitor’s experiences aren’t lessened by the closure of the climb the Board of management have committed to develop further visitor experiences before the climb is closed. The Board will give tour operators 18 months notice if they close the climb.
11. If people can’t climb Uluru, what other options are there for them to experience this special place?
Apart from climbing the rock, there are many ways for tourists to experience the beautiful national park. A recent survey showed that the most popular activities undertaken by tourists at Uluru included watching the sun rise and sun set, bike riding and walking along the tracks. Other activities for tourists at the national park include: scenic flights; visiting exhibitions of punu (wooden objects), paintings and jewellery made by artists in the western desert region; seasonal guided plant tours; dune walks and bush skill demonstrations.
12. If the climb is closed in the future, would there still be an entrance fee to the National Park?
Visitors to Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park would still be required to pay an entrance fee. Like most other national parks in Australia, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park uses the money to support the local community and keep the park well maintained. Entrance fees are used to fix roads, walking tracks and build tourist facilities.
13. Although I respect Aboriginal cultural beliefs, they’re not my cultural beliefs. Why is it offensive for me to climb?
Uluru is a national treasure and all tourists are welcomed by the Traditional Owners to share it. As the legal owners, they respectfully request that visitors no longer climb the rock. They do so because Uluru is a place of great spiritual importance and one which they are obliged to look after. As Traditional Owner Kunmanara says: “That's a really important sacred thing that you are climbing... You shouldn't climb. It's not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that's what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurrpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, 'Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that's right. This is the proper way: no climbing'.”