Aborigines ban climbing on Uluru

SYDNEY — Visitors to Uluru, the giant sandstone slab jutting from the central Australian desert have for decades ignored a sign at the rock’s base that politely reads: “Please don’t climb.” Now Elders who manage the popular site will demand it.

SYDNEY — Visitors to Uluru, the giant sandstone slab jutting from the central Australian desert, have for decades ignored a sign at the rock’s base that politely reads: “Please don’t climb.”

On Wednesday, a board members of Uluru-KataTjuta National Park, which manages the popular site also known as Ayers Rock, said they would soon stop requesting that hikers respect the landmark. Instead, they will demand it.

Beginning in 2019, climbing Uluru, which is considered sacred to the region’s indigenous Anangu people, will be banned, the board said.

“It is an extremely important place,” said Sammy Wilson, an Indigenous community representative who sits on the park’s board and is what is known as a traditional owner. Uluru, he said, is “not a theme park like Disneyland.”

Climbing the 1,141-foot-tall rock in Australia’s Northern Territory will be banned as of Oct. 26, 2019, a historically significant date for the site. On that day in 1985, the government returned ownership of Uluru to the Anangu people. As part of that agreement, the Anangu lease the site back to the government, and the two parties jointly manage it.

Uluru has, for many in Australia, come to symbolize the struggle for Indigenous rights. Mr. Wilson said some people in the government wanted to keep the rock open to hikers, but “it’s not their law that lies in this land.”

Traditional owners do not climb Uluru out of respect, and they worry that hiking will damage the stone. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Fewer than 20 percent of visitors now climb the rock, according to the government.

There has been opposition to the climbing ban. Last year, Adam Giles, a politician with an Indigenous heritage who was then the Northern Territory chief minister, called the idea “ludicrous.”

But Sally Barnes, Australia’s director of national parks, said it was a “significant moment for all Australians” that “marks a new chapter in our history.”

“It clearly says we put country and culture first when managing this place for all Australians and our visitors from around the world,” she said on Wednesday.

About 250,000 people visit Uluru every year, according to the park’s website. In recent years, the number of visitors wishing to climb therock has dropped significantly, to less than 20 percent, according to Ms. Barnes. Tour operators now offer alternatives to climbing Uluru, including camel tours around its base.

“The best view of Uluru is from the bottom,” one social media user said on Wednesday.

How would a ban be enforced?

· Under Commonwealth laws, there are steep fines for people whoride or walk in a Commonwealth reserve and go off track

· The management board could have all walking tracks on the rock removed, making any climb illegal

· In practical terms, a chain currently in place could be removed, which would make climbing Uluru physically difficult

· Under NT legislation, sacred sites including Uluru have special protections, and a serious breach of the Sacred Sites Act can lead to penalties of more than $60,000 and two years' jail

The board, made up of eight traditional owners and three representatives from National Parks, made the decision after consulting with the wider Anangu community, who it said was overwhelmingly in support of banning climbs.

Senior traditional owner and chairman of the park board Sammy Wilson was at Uluru for the announcement and in a written speech said the site had deep cultural significance and was not a "theme park".

"Some people in tourism and government for example might have been saying we need to keep it open but it's not their law that lies in this land," he said.

"It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland.

"TheGovernment needs to respect what we are saying about our culture in the same way it expects us to abide by its laws.

"After much discussion, we've decided it's time."

The banwill begin on October 26, 2019 to coincide with the 34th anniversary of the return of Uluru to traditional owners.

A history of disrespect atop the rock

The decision to ban peopleclimbing Uluru comes after a long history of behaviour that has offended the traditional owners of the sacred site.

Traditional owners have been asking visitors not to climb Uluru since the 1985 handback and signs requesting people reconsider climbing have been in place at the base of the climb area since 1992.

The entirety of Uluru is a sacred area and the site where the climb begins is also a sacred men's area.

Whether visitors should be allowed to climb Uluru has long been a topic of debate, with a number of controversial incidents—including a woman "stripping" on top of Uluru — reigniting the discussion in years past.

On the same day the ban was announced, three tourists who were rescued from the rock in 2016 after wandering off the marked path had their court cases in Alice Springs adjourned.

The board said the climb had also claimed 36 lives since record-keeping began in the 1950s, with the last recorded death in 2010.

New criteria

Themost recent park management plan outlined three criteria that the board saidwere necessary to consider before closing the climb for good.

They were that new visitor experiences were successfully established; cultural and natural experiences on offer were why tourists visited the park; and that the number of visitors climbing Uluru had fallen below 20 per cent.

Mr Wilson said data collated in 2015 showed that of the days the park was open and data was collected, 16.2 per cent of visitors climbed Uluru.

In 2010 when the board announced its intention to close the climb the number was 38 per cent, and in the 1990s it was 74 per cent.

In his speech, Mr Wilson called for support from the public and all levels of government to close the climb.

"Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding agun to our heads to keep it open," he said.

"Please don't hold us to ransom.

"This decision is for both Anangu and non-Anangu together to feel proud about; to realise, of course it's the right thing to close the 'playground'.

"Closing the climb is not something to feel upset about, but a cause for celebration."

Will closing the climb affect visitor numbers?

One of the most consistent arguments in the debate was whether banning the climb would result in a drop in tourism numbers.

For decades people have discussed whether climbing Uluru is appropriate but the Anangu's message is the same now as it has always been: please don't climb, wrote Louise Maher.

In 2009, Tourism Central Australia warned that flagging visitor numbers to the park could worsen if a ban was put in place, but has now said it supports the decision.

Members of the Central Land Council and other proponents of a ban had consistently argued drops in numbers would not occur.

More recently, tourism operators rejected claims a ban would result in a drop in visitors, saying ending the activity and teaching people about why it was inappropriate to scale the rock might increase visitation.

The park's management plan ensured there were enough other experiences on offer to still entice tourists to the site should a ban be put in place, they said.

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