SYDNEY – Waves of tourists trying to scale the peak of Australia’s sacred indigenous site of Uluru, and the trash and waste they leave in their wake, has caused a sustainability crisis in the popular tourist spot.
Uluru, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu aboriginal people of the area, is a giant 348-meter (1,142 feet) high sandstone monolith with a total circumference of 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) in the middle of the Australian outback and inside the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Thousands of climbers are flocking to the scale the giant red outcrop before a ban on climbing Uluru comes into effect on Oct. 26 after the national park’s board in 2017 voted to end climbing due to indigenous sensitivities. Locals have long asked tourists not to climb the site.
The latest record of visitors shows a 20 percent increase, a total of almost 400,000 tourists, between July 2018 and June this year.
“The ongoing rise in visitation is likely to be due to a number of factors,” the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park press office told EFE, referring to new direct flights to Ayers Rock Airport located about 20 minutes’ drive away, and the holiday season, among other factors.
With almost all accommodation in the area fully booked, many travelers have elected to set up tents along the side of the road leading to the rock, even encroaching on private land to stay overnight.
The mountains of waste left behind by tourists “can impact an ecosystem, be it by contaminating water or being consumed by animals. It also mars the natural beauty of Uluru, and shows great disrespect to its traditional owners,” Marty Middlebrook, of the environmental non-profit Planet Ark, told EFE.
Lyndee Severin, owner of a cattle station and roadhouse near Uluru, told Australian public broadcaster ABC that she has seen climbers emptying their portable toilets on her property.
“If they are dumping it on the station, then that has the potential to breach organic standards. It’s also disgusting,” she said.
This was endorsed by Andrew Thompson, ranger with the Central Land Council, who told broadcaster SBS that “volumes of rubbish” are being dumped by campers staying in areas that are not designated as camping grounds.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which is spread over 1,325 square kilometers, is also an important environmental enclave that is home to 21 species of mammals, 73 reptiles and 178 birds.
For the indigenous Anangu people, who in 1985 recovered traditional ownership of the lands they have lived on for 30,000 years, Uluru is a sacred place where they believe the spirits of ancestral beings tasked with guiding them reside.
The Planet Ark ecologist urges tourists to “recognize the need to make as little impact as possible on the environment” saying that “positive personal actions can make a big difference.”
He also asks tourism operators to educate visitors on how to manage waste and the government to enforce penalties for illegal camping and dumping.