SYDNEY — Australia on Wednesday announced plans to stop tourists climbing Uluru, the giant red rock sacred to Aborigines and formerly known as Ayers Rock, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
National parks officials said the move was put forward on cultural and safety grounds as there have been about 30 deaths among tourists making the arduous climb, which has reluctantly been allowed by Aboriginal elders.
“For visitor safety, cultural, and environmental reasons the (national parks) director and the board will work towards closure of the climb,” the parks authority said.
The authority’s report added that Uluru was already closed on summer days and the Aboriginal community wanted it permanently off-limits to climbers.
Regional officials immediately opposed the closure, arguing it would exacerbate Australia’s steady drop in tourism numbers.
“We have never supported the full closure of the climb at Uluru and that remains our position,” Northern Territory Tourism Minister Chris Burns told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
However, the Australian Tourism Export Council endorsed the ban, which needs central government approval, and welcomed proposals to replace it with different activities.
“While some tourists have sought the opportunity to climb Uluru, the inbound tourism industry respects and acknowledges that the rights of Uluru?s traditional owners should be paramount with regards to this issue,” the council’s managing director Matt Hingerty said.
Indigenous community spokesman Vince Forrester said Aborigines had wanted the climb banned since the rock was handed back to its traditional owners in 1985, describing it as a matter of respect for an important religious site.
“You can’t go climb on top of the Vatican, you can’t go climb on top of the Buddhist temples and so on and so forth,” he told the ABC.
The striking geographical feature, surrounded by thousands of square miles (kilometres) of desolate Outback, forms a key part of Aboriginal creation mythology and attracts about 350,000 tourists a year.