In the middle of nowhere in the southwest corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, the flat, orange-red sand desert landscape stretches on as far as the eye can see. Then, 208 miles from the nearest town, a sandstone rock rises over 1,100 feet from the earth, two miles long and one mile wide. Known as Uluru, or more casually as Ayers Rock, it is Australia’s most recognizable natural landmark, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors per year to explore its geological greatness.
Tourism has been in effect there for numerous decades, but 1985 was when things got interesting. In that year, the land’s aboriginal people and traditional owners, the Anangu, were returned ownership of Ayers Rock on the condition that they would then lease it back to the Australian government as a national park. The deal was a 99-year joint management plan aimed at maximizing and managing tourism in the area. In an attempt to protect interests on both sides, the Indigenous Land Corporation was created, a 12-member board containing eight indigenous members. Tourism, conservation, and government members are also represented on the Board.
Map of Uluru, Ayers Rock
There was little disagreement over the idea of maximizing tourism, but there was a major discrepancy between the Aussies and the Anangu as far as how they believed visitors should experience Uluru. Many people choose to walk the six-mile loop around the rock’s base. Others hop on a van tour. There’s plenty to see from the ground, including caves, watering holes, and aboriginal drawings. Companies also offer bush food tours, cultural dinners and dances. But for decades, more extreme adventurers had been coming to Ayers Rock for one specific reason: to climb on top of it. While the government was (and is) keen on letting visitors do as they please so long as they came, the Anangu have long been opposed to letting people step foot on the rock itself.
For experienced adventurers, calling the journey to the top a “climb” is a little bit of a stretch. It’s more of a scramble: a half-mile, thousand-foot ascent assisted by a chain handhold. But that doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk. High winds and temperatures hot enough to melt shoes are common on Ayers Rock, and as of today, over 200 people have been injured — and 36 have died — from falling, heat exhaustion, or heart attacks.
For the Anangu, the danger is only part of the problem. Most of their opposition to the climb lies in the fact that Ayers Rock is considered sacred by the tribe, and the climbing route requires hikers to pass over a sanctified track, a path taken by Aboriginal men during spiritual rituals. Environmental concerns have also grown in recent years as waste and trash from tourists contaminates the watering holes and affects the local animal population.
Since their agreement with the government in 1985, the Anangu have been lobbying to close the climb to hikers, allowing visitors only to walk around it and observe it, not physically touch it or walk on it. The government, however, has resisted. Back then, the Australian government’s stats showed that 90 percent of the tourists who visited the area came with the intention of climbing Ayers Rock. Given that, they said, closing the climb would be the same as shutting down tourism. And since the original plan was to do the exact opposite, the climb remained open despite the concerns raised by the Anangu Board members.
In other words, the Board decided the decision about the climb’s closure would be up to the tourists — not the locals.
But things began to turn the corner a few years ago in 2010, when a plan was finally developed that promised to close the climb — eventually. The deal was that climbing Ayers Rock would be banned when (1) the percentage of visitors who came with the intention of climbing dropped to 20 percent and (2) new “visitor experiences” had been successfully established as alternatives. In other words, the Board decided the decision about the climb’s closure would be up to the tourists — not the locals.
Whether this conundrum is tourism at its worst is up to the individual to decide. The interesting thing is that the climax is coming; the number of climbers has significantly decreased in the last two decades thanks to the efforts of the Anangu to raise awareness. In fact, over the past two years, articles from various news outlets have reported that some surveys of visitors show the percentage has already dropped below 20 percent.
But according to the Australian government, those numbers aren’t accurate. Last month, park public relations officials told Gear Patrol that the percentage of visitors who come to climb Ayers Rock is currently at 27 percent. This statistic was once again confirmed by a spokesperson this month.
“The information we have is less than 30 percent of people climb”, the spokesperson said. “We have installed climb counters to get more robust numbers and to count the actual number of people climbing, but we need to calibrate these numbers.”
That last part is a little fuzzy. As you might imagine, statistics and surveys, especially when it comes to tourism, can be quite ambiguous, especially when two sides want them to say different things. Since most surveys are simply small samples, it’s not hard to see how the two sides can come up with different results if objectivity happens to be pushed to the side.
Yet even when the Board officially agrees that the percentage has dropped below 20 percent, the climb won’t be forced to close immediately. Then the second part of the deal must be fulfilled: new activities must first be established. And a spokesperson said tourist organizations will be given 18 months’ notice if a decision is made to shut down the climb.
Most people we interviewed who live and work in the area will be happy to see the open climb come to an end. “I personally wouldn’t climb it”, one tour guide told us. “I understand why tourists want to, but you have to understand how disrespectful it really is to the Anangu. This is their land.”
Nevertheless, the decision still rests with each individual. Although there’s no telling exactly when the climb will close, the general consensus from all parties is that the end is indeed in sight, meaning those who wish to climb Uluru should get moving as soon as possible. At the current pace of decline, it is estimated that all surveys will begin to show the percentage has dropped below 20 percent about five years from now, in 2020. How successful — and motivated — the government proves to be when it comes to setting up additional attractions and fulfilling the requirements of the closure remains to be seen.