The devastating fire that tore through Longitude 131, the six-star section of the Ayers Rock Resort, on Friday, 24 October is yet another blow for Red Centre tourism in a year already troubled by disputes between the Uluru-Kata Tjuta park service and the Central Australian tourist industry, coupled with a downturn in visitor numbers caused by the SARS-epidemic and the fallout from continuing terrorism scares. While the resort is insured and will begin rebuilding almost immediately, this new attraction for visitors to the Outback is now "off-line".
The temporary sidelining of Longitude 131 is part of the continuing saga of bad news or bad vibes for the Red Centre tourism industry. In August of this year, The Australian revealed the deep level of concern felt by the Ayers Rock Resort and associated operators with the recently toughened rules on commercial filming and photography at Uluru. These rules fall within the auspices of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Regulations.
Alex Penklis, the general manager of the resort, told journalist Cameron Stewart that the regulations, which have now placed 40 per cent of the rock off-limits to commercial photography, were "unworkable" and could "significantly damage Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s profile at home and abroad because efforts to promote the park … [were] too heavily restricted".
Ultimately, Penklis warned, this could lead directly to a future drop in visitor numbers.
But Penklis’s comments are not the only flak that Parks Australia, the federal body responsible for Uluru, has taken in recent months. Just three weeks ago several coach loads of international tourists were turned away from the Rock at sunrise because their drivers did not have the correct paperwork. The tourists were travelling on Cobb and Company and VIP coaches – both long-established operators in the Red Centre – when they were excluded from the park by a senior ranger.
The park service has maintained that this was part of a crack down on "rogue" travel operators who did not have permits, or whose drivers failed to carry the correct documents. But the ranger’s action was seen as being unnecessarily harsh by other operators.
Australian Tourism Export Council chairman Nick Smail told the Centralian Advocate in Alice Springs that the ranger’s actions were "outrageous". He also said that neither company had been warned of the impending crackdown.
For some time there has been a question mark over the attitude of Parks Australia, which has jointly managed Uluru since 1985, towards tourism. While the park service’s public documents suggest that it is fully supportive of a developing and expanding tourism industry, its internal documents often suggest otherwise.
A consultant’s report commissioned for the park in 2000 said that an increase in the number of filming permits at Uluru would lead to more promotion which would equal more visitors and therefore more environmental damage.
Indeed as far back as 1987, park authorities have been flagging the possibility of limiting visitor numbers. At that stage park superintendent Chip Morgan suggested that if visitor number increases were sustained at the rate that they had been in the two years following Handback, then the park would have to look to the example of national parks in America which he said did set such limits.
However what Morgan did not point out is that those American parks that did have some constraints on visitation – such as the equally environmentally sensitive Grand Canyon National Park, where summer visitors to the South Rim can no longer use private cars – were often receiving ten times or more the numbers of visitors that went to Uluru.
In 1987 visitor numbers to Uluru had reached about 250,000 people per annum. In 2003 that figure now hovers around the 400,000 mark. Even compared to other Australian parks, this is not a huge number – Parks Victoria, for instance, puts the number of annual visitors to the Grampians National Park at over 1.5 million. And the Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales has to cope with an estimated 3 million visitors each year.
A two-day meeting at Uluru, beginning on 29 October, will bring together members of the park’s board of management as well as various tourism industry representatives, and interested persons acting on behalf of the local film and photographic industries. All of these groups have expressed high hopes for a resolution of the issues that were first raised by Alex Penklis of the Ayers Rock Resort back in August. But whether a common ground can be found which will satisfy the often conflicting interests of the park’s multiple stakeholders – from traditional owners through to media personnel - remains to be seen.
The workshop to discuss commercial filming and photography was postponed at a late hour (after this story was received) due to continuing turmoil at the Ayers Rock Resort caused by a second serious fire which burnt through the area on Monday, October 27th.