The move to stop visitors climbing the sandstone monolith Uluru in central Australia has ignited a tourism boom and sparked heated debate led by divisive politician Pauline Hanson, best known for her anti-immigration rhetoric. She has criticized the right of Anangu, the monolith’s traditional owners, to prevent tourist access.

Hanson herself turned up to Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, on August 19 in a blaze of adverse publicity to climb the global tourism icon but turned back after becoming cowed by the scale and danger of the ascent, which has taken the lives of 37 people since the 1950s.

She was attempting to join an increasing number of visitors now climbing what is colloquially called “The Rock” before visitor access ends on October 26, a significant date marking 34 years to the day since ownership of Uluru and the surrounding red-dirt country was handed back to Anangu.

They believe Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta (spectacular desert rock formations) are sacred, an integral part of their creation story, and three years ago announced it was time for climbing to end.

It was a move that met with widespread understanding while at the same time unleashing pent-up demand from Australians who felt they had a right to climb despite the traditional owners encouraging them not to.

Steven Baldwin, park operations and visitor services manager for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, said there has been a significant increase in visitor numbers over the past few years with the climb ban playing an important role.

However, he said a longer-term catalyst has been Field of Light, a spectacular installation by artist Bruce Munro (funded by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia) that premiered in 2016 and will conclude on December 31, 2020.

“Field of Light has been absolutely brilliant,” said Baldwin. “Numbers went through the roof, we lost our shoulder and low seasons the moment Field of Light was announced.”

The climbing ban has been icing on the cake.

“Visitation for the year to date is just under 20 per cent up on last year, and last year was up 20 per cent on previous years,” Baldwin said.

“Our numbers are the highest since the rush after the 2000 Sydney Olympics. We’ve had to introduce overflow parking and put more marshals in place, something we’ve never had to do before.

“Clearly the numbers are increasing as we approach the climb end date and I’m expecting further growth, particularly during the upcoming school holidays in late September, early October.”

Local accommodation is packed.

Grant Hunt, CEO of Voyages Indigenous Tourism, which operates local accommodation monopoly Ayers Rock Resort, said Field of Light “was just a masterstroke and the numbers have been pumping through since 2017.”

He said occupancy across its properties averages more 95 per cent through June, July, August, September and October, making the substantial investment in Field of Light worthwhile.

During July occupancies reached 96.7 per cent. “We’ve got 5,000 people staying tonight,” he said last Friday (August 23).

As for the climbing surge, Hunt wryly commented: “It’s funny, human nature. If something is there every day, you don’t use it or in this case climb it. As soon as someone says we’re going to take it away everyone wants to do it.”

Deeper Immersion

He believes most demand is coming from the domestic camping and caravanning market.

“I don’t think we’re seeing the same kind of take-up coming out of our hotels. I think traveler’s these days are very savvy and they seem to have risen above that kind of superficiality.

“There’s a much great seeking of deeper immersion in experiences and I think that’s why the number of people climbing the rock has dropped, from 80 percent of visitors in the 1980s to around 12 percent now. I think people nowadays are more travelers than tourists.”

Stephen Schwer, CEO of Tourism Central Australia who is based in Alice Springs, 290 miles (467 km) from Uluru, said the whole region has enjoyed one of its best years since the global financial crisis.

Stitched panorama of Uluru. Source: Niccolò Ubalducci, Flickr.

Key factors include a weaker Australian dollar, the rare filling of the normally dry Lake Eyre and the decision to stop climbing on Uluru.

“We’ve had quite a big skew to domestic drive travel because of the closure of the climb,” said Schwer.

Yield per visitor is also increasing as the demographics change. “We focus on the adventure traveler and pitch a lot of our marketing at them. The reason we do that is these types of travelers tend to stay longer and spend more money than other travelers.”

Like Voyages’ Hunt, Schwer has seen a change in traveler priorities. “We’re seeing more and more people specifically requesting connections with aboriginal cultures,” Schwer said.

“For example, through the information centre we run we get a lot more requests for things like tours with aboriginal guides, or aboriginal cultural experiences.

“We also seeing quite a lot interest in the aboriginal art movement and the varied styles of aboriginal art in central Australia.

“They tend to be seeking more connection with the landscape rather than a cursory interaction. They want an immersive experience.”

For example, rather than ride trails by them themselves many mountain bikers will go the local bike shop, find out about cycle groups and go out with them, “because it’s not just about the trail it’s about the connection with locals and local knowledge,” he said.

“We also see that with the cultural travelers, they are looking for that connection with a local person who can tell their story.

“The kinds of questions they ask are not: what days does that tour run, what times do they leave, how much does it cost?

“They’re more about: and is that person who run the tour a local? Did they grow up here?”

Looking ahead, Hunt from Voyages doesn’t believe the climbing ban will hurt visitor numbers.

“I just can’t see it. We’re sitting on a record November right now. I think we’ll get through it without any issues.”

Photo Credit: A road sign near Uluru (Ayers Rock). Reuters/Tim Wimborne