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To Climb or Not to Climb Sacred Mountains: The Case of Uluru

Is your vacation choice blasphemy? Travelers visiting churches, mosques and temples are used to making concessions such as wearing head coverings, removing shoes or refraining from photographing sacred items. But what if the holy site is a living mountain? How do you preserve its sanctity? Do you opt not to hike or photograph it?

Indigenous peoples around the world – from the Himalaya to the Andes to the plains of East Africa – regard mountains and other prominent natural features as sacred. For many of these cultures the sight of holiday thrill seekers visiting such natural sites is abhorrent.

One place where this issue has attracted a great deal of attention is Australia, where Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) has long been a contested source of tourism revenue. Billed as a place to hike and enjoy spectacular sunsets (often with a drink in hand), Uluru is the most commonly recognized tourist attraction in Australia after the Sydney Opera House. A World Heritage site and part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, it’s also a sacred and living holy place for Aboriginal Australians, particularly the Pitjantiatjara and Yankunytjatjara people, who inhabit the region and collectively call themselves the Anangu.

Respecting the sacredness of Uluru is an important part of Tjukurpa, the Aboriginal beliefs and traditional rules that guide the relationships between people, plants, animals and the physical landscapes. As one Anangu traditional owner states in the official national park visitors guide and elsewhere, “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing. You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything.”

And it seems that non-Aboriginal leaders are in fact listening. Title to Uluru was returned to the Anangu in 1985, in an agreement that called for it to be leased back to the Australian government for 99 years and to be jointly managed as a national park. Last year the government held a public comment period for its 10-year Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Draft Management Plan, which included provisions for banning climbing on Uluru. Although the government ultimately decided against implementing the ban at this time, the final version of the new management plan does include the option of closing Uluru to climbers in the future if its popularity declines.

To further combat racial tensions and ease cultural strife the Australian government has also announced its support for new initiatives to increase economic opportunities for Aboriginal Australians, including the formation of a new National Indigenous Training Academy at Yulara, 11 miles outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Beginning in 2013, the school will train 200 indigenous Australians each year in the tourism and hospitality trade through a program designed to be inclusive of Aboriginal customs and beliefs.

The academy is a project of the Aboriginal-owned Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), which also recently announced its purchase of the iconic Ayers Rock Resort. The ILC’s goal is to have Aboriginal Australians make up more than half of the resort’s 670-person workforce by 2018. It is expected that many of these employees will be graduates of the National Indigenous Training Academy.

The program also has the enthusiastic backing of Ecotourism Australia, a prominent nonprofit organization that works with the Australian government and tourism industry to develop and promote responsible tourism activities. “We absolutely support the aspiration to provide the traditional owners, the Anangu, with a range of employment and business opportunities, and the establishment of a National Indigenous Training Academy at Yulara will certainly help achieve this goal,” says Kym Cheatham, CEO of Ecotourism Australia, according to the travel news website eTravel Blackboard. “We see this [as] integral as the park managers, traditional owners and tourism operators work towards the closure of the Uluru climb.”

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