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Dan Peled/AAP

Why is it still possible to climb Uluru?

Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles has described climbing Uluru as an unforgettable tourist experience – comparable to scaling the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The traditional owners, he has said, could derive important economic benefits from keeping it open.

Yet the Anangu people, Uluru’s traditional owners, have asked for decades that tourists not climb it. They explain that Uluru is a sacred place; the path followed by the climb represents an important dreaming track and Anangu feel a personal responsibility for the deaths or injuries of climbers.

So why is the climb still an option?

History of the climb

Uluru has been climbed by tourists for much of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, a safety chain was installed to accommodate the growing number of visitors. Despite this chain, over 30 people have lost their lives climbing “the Rock”. Many more have been injured. Still, about one-third of visitors choose to climb.

The title for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in which Uluru stands, was transferred to Anangu control in 1985. Following the Rock’s handback, the traditional owners were obliged to lease the Park back to the Director of National Parks, with day-to-day management handled by Parks Australia.

At the time of the handover, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management (made up of a majority of traditional owners) agreed not to close the climb, to minimise harm to the tourism industry.

In 2010, Parks Australia published a report saying the climb would be permanently closed when:

  • the Board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established, or
    • the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, or
    • the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decision to visit the park.

This means that Parks Australia has a clear mandate to develop alternative tourism products. Despite this, the core business of Parks Australia is conservation, rather than tourism development.

Although there are specialist staff to facilitate Anangu participation in tourism at Uluru, an inevitable tension exists between the traditional focus and knowledge base of Park employees and the push to develop Anangu business opportunities.

Conflicting economic imperatives

Between 2013 and 2015, I conducted 20 weeks of research at Uluru as part of a study undertaken by the Australian National University, in association with Macquarie University. I examined how Anangu use their cultural heritage to earn a living. As I discovered, the environment in which Anangu attempt to develop sustainable alternatives to climbing is extraordinarily challenging.

In this complex cultural and economic situation, one challenge comes from the Ayers Rock Resort. The resort is located 20km from the Rock, and Anangu land rights don’t extend to its grounds.

Instead, Ayers Rock Resort is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), a federal statutory authority that buys land and businesses to realise economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits for Indigenous Australians.

A subsidiary of the ILC, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, has been responsible for running the resort since it was acquired in 2011. Voyages has focused on transforming Ayers Rock Resort into a prime destination for Indigenous tourism.

As an example of the conflict that can arise from this arrangement, we can look at Maruku Arts, a locally-based Anangu arts and tourism enterprise. Maruku has a regional mandate and serves many communities outside Uluru. The resort contracted Maruku to run a market stall on its lawn, so guests could buy art and watch demonstrations of local artists at work.

Through its new outlet, Maruku is able to put over A$100,000 extra each year into the local Anangu community. However, Maruku has struggled to pay the sales commissions stipulated by the resort, on top of the commission paid to artists and the running costs of the stall. Between May 2012 and April 2015, the Anangu enterprise lost A$16,163 on the market stall, whereas Ayers Rock Resort earned A$112,652 in commission.

As the resort management explained to me, Voyages has invested considerably in developing the market stall infrastructure, and Maruku’s market has caused the resort’s income from its own art galleries to drop. It also argues that the market provides new jobs to Anangu.

The market stall represents just one example of the competitive business environment in which not-for-profit Anangu businesses like Maruku Arts are trying to survive.

Ayers Rock Resort strives to be profitable, not least because the ILC’s acquisition has resulted in a sizeable debt burden, (the ILC recently received a A$65 million loan from the federal government). This induces decisions which, while commercially sound, are not always conducive to the sustainability of Anangu-owned enterprises focusing on “culture work”.

Funding and the Intervention

There are other complications in the attempt to develop sustainable and culturally appropriate alternatives to climbing Uluru. One is the tight operational budget for Australia’s park agencies.

At Uluru, Parks Australia has faced some particularly challenging years, as a decline in tourists – from 349,172 in 2005 to 257,761 in 2012 – caused revenue from the sale of entry tickets to fall.

At the same time, lack of funding has meant that the Uluru Cultural Centre, where tourists are encouraged to begin their visit to the Park and learn about Anangu culture, hasn’t been maintained properly. It looks dilapidated, and anything but an alternative to climbing.

The community has also been impacted by the Northern Territory Emergency Response, known locally as the Intervention. In 2006 an administrator was appointed to run the Anangu village of Mutitjulu, which is adjacent to the Rock.

The Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation, responsible for delivering aspects of municipal and community services, had its funding and several of its functions taken away.

Although the corporation regained control of the community in 2007, it has since wrestled with a high turnover of CEOs, disagreements over service provision and accusations of corruption. The corporation oversees several local businesses, one of which – a tourism enterprise – failed during my research.

Let us return to Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles and the subject of climbing Uluru. Rather than investing in the climb, in the face of Anangu wishes, Mr Giles should consider resolving the conflicting agendas, governance challenges and funding difficulties that characterise the Uluru economy.

Once tourists can enjoy various sustainable products based on Anangu culture, the destination will become truly unforgettable and benefit Anangu economically. Then, the Uluru climb can be closed.

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