Closing Uluru to climbers empowers Indigenous people to teach visitors about their culture on their own terms, which is more sustainable for tourism in the long run.
Uluru is a drawcard for international and domestic tourists, and is visited by over 250,000 people per year. A substantial number of these choose to climb the rock. On busy days, the number can be in the hundreds. This is despite being asked by the traditional owners, the Anangu people, to respect their wishes, culture and law and not climb Uluru.
The Anangu people actually offer visitors a range of eco-cultural tourism activities that focus on sharing Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions, which don’t involve planting feet on a sacred place. These activities including nature walks, painting workshops, bush yarns and bush food experiences.
This decision to close the rock to climbers comes after many years of conceding rights back to the Anangu, and is possibly one of the few times where Indigenous values have truly been prioritised over other interests.
Giving power back to Uluru’s traditional owners
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, declared in 1950, was handed back to the Anangu on October 26, 1985. While the agreement required the park to be leased to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services under a co-management arrangement, the handover was a symbolic high point for land rights.
In practice, however, aspects of the park’s operations were contrary to the traditional owners’ approach to conservation and management. For instance, park management models stated the need to place:
… emphasis on developing acceptable patterns of use of the physical environment and not on recognition of social and spiritual values of land to Indigenous people.
In 2010, the park’s management plan proposed to close the rock if the proportion of visitors who wished to climb Uluru was below 20%. An independent analysis of track counter data and visitor statistics undertaken by the Griffith Institute for Tourism over a four year period revealed that in almost all circumstances (and even with allowance for track counter inaccuracy) the proportion was under 20%.
Finally on November 1, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management, consisting of eight traditional owners and four government officials, voted unanimously to close Uluru (Ayers Rock) to climbers. The local tourism industry supported the decision.
But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, getting involved in the tourism industry comes with its own set of problems. They have been tasked with juggling their heritage, customs, culture and traditions with government initiatives that prioritise economic over socio-cultural development. For example, as Quandamooka Dreaming “targets big dollars from tourism” in SE Queensland, the traditional owners are successfully balancing their socio-economic aspirations with cultural lores by determining that some sacred sites will remain accessible only to elders and initiated Indigenous Quandamooka people. But other sites will be open to eco-tourists.
Given the considerable pressure tourism places on local resources and places, the involvement of local communities and different groups within them is now considered critical for achieving sustainable tourism.
A recent report concludes that participation and empowerment of local communities are success factors to managing tourism growth. It’s the local community that looks after the destination, and it can make or break a tourist’s experience. The report finds developing tourism without input from the local people has often led to conflict.
Closing Uluru for climbing should be seen as a shining example of sustainable tourism being a vehicle for the preservation, maintenance and ongoing development of culture, traditions and knowledge.
And when reconciliation principles are practised not preached, traditional custodians of the land are afforded due respect. This then leads them to share their 60,000 year old knowledge of the management of the land we are privileged to utilise as tourism destinations.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management has announced that tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru from 2019. The climb has always been discouraged by the park’s Traditional Owners (the Anangu people) but a number of tourists continued to climb the rock on a daily basis. Below, in English and Indigenous language, Sammy Wilson, chairman of the park board, explains why his people have decided to ban the climb outright.
THE Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board has announced tourists will be banned from climbing Uluru, an activity long considered disrespectful by the region’s traditional owners.
Anangu have always held this place of Law. Other people have found it hard to understand what this means; they can’t see it. But for Anangu it is indisputable. So this climb issue has been widely discussed, including by many who have long since passed away. More recently people have come together to focus on it again and it was decided to take it to a broader group of Anangu. They declared it should be closed. This is a sacred place restricted by law.
It’s not just at board meetings that we discussed this but it’s been talked about over many a camp fire, out hunting, waiting for the kangaroo to cook, they’ve always talked about it.
The climb is a men’s sacred area. The men have closed it. It has cultural significance that includes certain restrictions and so this is as much as we can say. If you ask, you know they can’t tell you, except to say it has been closed for cultural reasons.
What does this mean? You know it can be hard to understand – what is cultural law? Which one are you talking about? It exists; both historically and today. Tjukurpa includes everything: the trees; grasses; landforms; hills; rocks and all.
You have to think in these terms; to understand that country has meaning that needs to be respected. If you walk around here you will learn this and understand. If you climb you won’t be able to. What are you learning? This is why Tjukurpa exists. We can’t control everything you do but if you walk around here you will start to understand us.
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. It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland. We want you to come, hear us and learn. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time.
We work on the principle of mutual obligation, of working together, but this requires understanding and acceptance of the climb closure because of the sacred nature of this place. 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.
On tour with us, tourists talk about it. They often ask why people are still climbing and I always reply, ‘things might change…’ They ask, ‘why don’t they close it?’ I feel for them and usually say that change is coming. Some people come wanting to climb and perhaps do so before coming on tour with us. They then wish they hadn’t and want to know why it hasn’t already been closed. But it’s about teaching people to understand and come to their own realisation about it. We’re always having these conversations with tourists.
And now that the majority of people have come to understand us, if you don’t mind, we will close it! After much discussion, we’ve decided it’s time.
Visitors needn’t be worrying there will be nothing for them with the climb closed because there is so much else besides that in the culture here. It’s not just inside the park and if we have the right support to take tourists outside it will benefit everyone. People might say there is no one living on the homelands but they hold good potential for tourists. We want support from the government to hear what we need and help us. We have a lot to offer in this country. There are so many other smaller places that still have cultural significance that we can share publicly. So instead of tourists feeling disappointed in what they can do here they can experience the homelands with Anangu and really enjoy the fact that they learnt so much more about culture.
Whitefellas see the land in economic terms where Anangu see it as Tjukurpa. If the Tjukurpa is gone so is everything. We want to hold on to our culture. If we don’t it could disappear completely in another 50 or 100 years. We have to be strong to avoid this. The government needs to respect what we are saying about our culture in the same way it expects us to abide by its laws. It doesn’t work with money. Money is transient, it comes and goes like the wind. In Anangu culture Tjukurpa is ever lasting.
Years ago, Anangu went to work on the stations. They were working for station managers who wanted to mark the boundaries of their properties at a time when Anangu were living in the bush. Anangu were the ones who built the fences as boundaries to accord with whitefella law, to protect animal stock. It was Anangu labour that created the very thing that excluded them from their own land. This was impossible to fathom for us! Why have we built these fences that lock us out? I was the one that did it! I built a fence for that person who doesn’t want anything to do with me and now I’m on the outside. This is just one example of our situation today.
You might also think of it in terms of what would happen if I started making and selling coca cola here without a license. The coca cola company would probably not allow it and I’d have to close it in order to avoid being taken to court. This is something similar for Anangu.
A long time ago they brought one of the boulders from the Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. From the time they brought it down Anangu kept trying to tell people it shouldn’t have been brought here. They talked about it for so long that many people had passed away in the meantime before their concerns were understood and it was returned. People had finally understood the Anangu perspective.
That’s the same as here. We’ve talked about it for so long and now we’re able to close the climb. It’s about protection through combining two systems, the government and Anangu. Anangu have a governing system but the whitefella government has been acting in a way that breaches our laws. Please don’t break our law, we need to be united and respect both.
Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. 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’.
The land has law and culture. We welcome tourists here. Closing the climb is not something to feel upset about but a cause for celebration.
Let’s come together; let’s close it together.
In Pitjantjatjara language
Anangungku iriti kanyiningi ngura Tjukurpa tjara panya. Tjinguru kulipai, ‘ai,ai, ah, nyaa nyangatja? What is Tjukurpa?’ Putu nyangangi panya. Palu Tjukurpa pala palula ngarinyi Ananguku. Ka palunya kulira wangka katiningi tjutangku. Kutjupa tjuta not with us panya. Kuwari wangka katiningi, wangka katiningi munuya kaputura piruku wangkanyi ka wiya, Anangu tjutangka piruku wangkara wangkara kati. Uwa ngalya katingu Anangu tjuta kutu. Ka Anangu tjutangku wangkangu palya, patila. Ngura miil-miilpa.
Not only the board meeting kutjuya wangkapai, meeting time kutju but meeting out in the campfire, waru kutjara. Waru kutjaraya malu paulpai tjana wangkapaitu still.
Uwa Tjukurpa wati tjutaku uwa… wati tjutangku patini, that’s it, Tjukurpa palatja patini.
Only Tjukurpa kutju, uwa Tjukurpa tjarala patini, miil-miilpa. If you ask some people, kutjupa tjapini ka, you know they can’t tell you, palu tjinguru patini, Tjukurpa.
Nyaa palatja, nyaa panya? You know sometimes it’s hard to understand panya: Tjukurpa nyaa? Which one? Ngarinyi tjukurpa, iriti tjinguru ngarinyi, Tjukurpa and he’s still there today. You know Tjukurpa is everything, its punu, grass or the land or hill, rock or what.
Palula tjanala kulintjaku, uwa kulinma nyuntu: ‘Uwa ngura Tjukurpa tjara’. Respect ngura, the country. You walk around, you’ll learn, understand. Tatini nyuntu munu putu kulini, nyaa nyuntu? What you learning? Pala palutawara; Tjukurpa. Ka we can’t tell you what you’re doing but when you walk around you understand. Kulini.
Some might be… you know, tourism, government-ngka, ‘no, leave it open, leave it’ Why? palumpa tjukurpa wiya nyangakutu. This is a very important place nyangatja panya. Not inka-inka, not to come and see the Disney land. Wiya come and learn about this place.
Rawangkula kulilkatira kulilkatira everywhere.
Ngapartji ngapartjila tjunu, to work together, but they gotta kulinma panya. Munta-uwa, tjana patini nyangatja, ngura miil-miilpa. Uwa. If I go some sort of country tjinguru ngura miil-miilpa, some place in the world they got miil-miilpa, I don’t climb panya, I respect that place. Pala purunypa nyangatja Ananguku panya. Ka tourist nganana stop-amilantja wiya; tourist welcome palu these things, nyangatja nyanga, panya.
Uwa, tour-ngkala ankupai. Visitors-ngku kulu kulu wangkapai, you know sometimes we was working with tourism panya, tourist-angka and, ‘why these people climbing? Kana, ‘Something is coming’. I always talk panya. Ka, ‘why don’t they close it?’ Ka uwa its coming always, ngaltu tourist tjuta, visitors. Some people, ‘I want to climb’ sometimes visitors climb Uluru munu ngalya pitjala on tour, why I climb? Alatji, why don’t they close it. Ka wiya, it’s coming now you know, nintintjaku, visitors kulintjaku munta-uwa. Uwa minga tjutangka wangkapai, always.
Uwa kuwari nyanga kulini, kulini, everybody kulinu, munta-uwa wanyu kala patila. Wangkara wangkarala kulini, munta-uwa.
Visitors-ngku panya kulilpai, ‘ai nyangatjaya patinu ka nganana yaaltji yaaltji kuwari? Nganana wai putu kulilpai’. Wiya, Tjukurpa ngarinyitu ngura, outside. Not only this park unngu kutju palu tjukurpa nganananya help-amilalatu ngapartji ngapartji ka nganana ngapartji katinyi visitors tjuta. Some reckon nobody living in the homelands but this good story to tell to the visitors panya. Ka nganananya help-amilantjaku kulu kulu. Government gotta really sit down and help. We got good places up here.
Ngura kulunypa tjuta nyarakutu ngarinyi but he got Tjukurpa tjara. Not Tjukurpa panya nyanga side but only this side, the public story. Uwa. Uwa. Ka tourist tjinguru kulilpai, ‘ah, I done nothing in this place’ but katira nintini, sit down and talk on the homeland, uwa. Nyinara wangkara visitors kulira kulira, they’ll go happy, ‘munta-uwa I learnt a lot about Anangu’.
Money is the land whitefella see, ka Anangu see the ngura, the land is Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa wiyangka tjinguru wiya. Culture kanyintjikitjala mukuringanyi. Culture tjinguru mala, another fifty years tjinguru panya, another hundred years, culture is gone, ma-wiyaringanyi. Nyara palula we gotta be strong. Ngapartji ngapartji panya government will understand, munta-uwa, what they saying. It doesn’t work with money. Money will go away, it’s like blowing in the wind, panya. Walpangku puriny waninyi. Culture panya Ananguku culture – Tjukurpa is there ngarinyi alatjitu.
Iriti Anangu bin go and work on the stations. They work for the station manager he want his land, block of land and uwa munta-uwa nyangatja nyangatja. Anangu was camping there, putingka. Building their fence because its boundary. Boundary palyanu that’s the law, whitefella-ku law to look after cattle or sheep or whatever oh that’s the law, Anangu was building it, Anangu working and Anangu now is sitting outside, he can’t get in! malaku, ngura nyakuntjikitja. Putulta kulini, ‘ai? Why? nyaakula fence-ingka patinu? That was me! I built a fence for that bloke and that bloke don’t like me, I’m outside now. Munta nyanga purunypa, same, what I’m saying.
Tjinguru nyaa kulintjaku you know… I built a coca cola factory here. That coca cola factory might say no! Hello, close it otherwise he’ll take me to court. Pala purunypa is Ananguku panya.
Iriti they bring this rock without knowing. They bring the rock from Devil’s Marbles to Alice Springs. Palunya ngalya katingu ka Anangu tjutangku putu wangkara wangkara that tjinguru paluru iriti righta ‘wai! Why that thing from here is over here?’ Wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara wangkara, some pass away-aringu palu purunypa people understand, ‘hey we gotta take this back!’ Tjukurpa paluru tjana kulinu.
That’s the same as here, wangkara, wangkara hello, palya patinila. You know, ngura look out-amilani tjungu, still the same panya, government and Anangu. Anangu is the government too but this government, whitefella government, panparangu nguwanpa. Wiya, panparangkuntja wiya please, we gotta be tjungu. Respect.
Iritinguru Anangu nguluringanyi nguwanpa, nguluringanyi, ah! someone is watching us like with a gun: ‘Don’t close it please’… don’t point me with a gun. Pukularintjaku Anangu and piranpa, together, tjungu, uwa munta-uwa, patinu palya nyanganyi the playground.
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”.
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.