“If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don’t enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity.” These are the words of Sammy Wilson, a member of the Anangu tribe. Anangu are the traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta and the surrounding land. Sammy chaired the board that banned climbing on the famous rock also known as Ayers Rock. The iconic rock located in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is listed as a World Heritage site.
The rock had been known as Uluru for thousands of years until British-born explorer William Gosse was credited with discovering it in 1873. He named it Ayers Rock after the then-premier of the British colony of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
In 1993, it became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory when it was renamed “Ayers Rock/Uluru.” The order of the names was reversed a decade later at the request of regional tourism operators.
British colonization traditionally has edited out the original aboriginal history of Australia, and there has long been tension within the indigenous population over funds that are collected from tourists climbing what they consider to be a sacred site
A resident of the Mutitjulu indigenous community, Kevin Cooley, said he is both happy and sad about the outcome. The community is situated in the rock’s shadow, and Cooley spends time collecting garbage left behind by tourists. On the other hand, he says he fears that tourist numbers are going to fall now, and this is going to mean the community’s economy will also decline.
The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said he was disappointed over the final tourist rush to climb the rock before it officially “closes” tomorrow. The date of the closure is significant in the history of restored indigenous influence in the region as it marks 34 years since the federal government gave the Anangu the land title to the national park in which Uluru stands. The traditional owners then immediately returned the park to the government under a 99-year lease on the condition that the park was jointly run by a board with a majority of Anangu members.
Beginning Saturday, climbing the rock becomes punishable by a fine of AU$6,300. It does not appear that being unable to climb has deterred tourists – on the contrary. According to the Chief Executive of Ayers Rock Resort, Grant Hunt, also the operator of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, bookings in November are at a record high.
“The traveling public have become much more culturally mature than they were 20 years ago. Most people expect this and in fact want it to happen,” he said.
Since 1948 when the first road was built with the hope of attracting tourists to the rock, around 37 climbers have died from suffering medical events. For the Anangu, every death has caused great anguish.