Australia's famed Uluru closed off to climbers from 2019

The long, contentious debate over the future of Australia's sacred Uluru is over.

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Jessica Mudditt (CNN)
SYDNEY (CNN) — The long, contentious debate over the future of Australia's sacred Uluru is over.

Climbing the famed Northern Territory site will be banned from October 2019 following a unanimous decision by the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board on November 1.

The 348-meter sandstone monolith is one of Australia's most recognizable landscapes and a major tourist attraction, however there have long been calls to end climbing activities due to cultural and safety concerns.

"The climb is a men's sacred area," said the board's chairman and a senior traditional owner and leader, Sammy Wilson, in a speech announcing the decision at Uluru.

The board's eight traditional Anangu community owners and three representatives from National Parks had set three criteria to consider before closing off the areas to climbers: That new visitor experiences were created; that cultural and natural experiences were the main reason tourists visited the park; and for the number of people climbing Uluru to fall below 20% of total visitors to the area.

An overdue decision, say supporters

The debate in Australia over climbing Uluru has raged for decades, and has been further inflamed by visitors acting particularly insensitively -- including a French tourist who stripped down to a bikini in 2010.

"Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open," Wilson said.

In 2009, the park released a draft proposal recommending a blanket ban on climbing. It failed to get government backing, with opponents of the ban claiming it would hurt Australia's tourism industry.

Nonetheless, the number of climbers has been in steady decline -- which may be partly attributed to safety concerns. Conditions are steep and temperatures often sweltering. Thirty-six people have died while climbing since records began in 1958, with the most recent death recorded in 2010.

According to the park's data, in the 1990s the number of visitors who climbed Uluru was 74%, which fell to 28% in 2010 and just 16.2% in 2015. In 2015, 300,000 people visited Uluru, which was formerly known by its colonial name of Ayers Rock.

A significant date

The date of the ban was chosen for its historic significance: October 26, 2019 coincides with the 34th anniversary of the return of Uluru to its traditional owners. Their calls to end the climbing of Uluru began that same year and signs asking people to reconsider climbing were first erected in 1992.

In 1985, the Commonwealth Government of Australia returned Uluru to the traditional custodians of the land (also known as traditional or community owners), the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people, who are also known as Anangu.

Uluru is sacred to Australia's indigenous peoples because it's believed to have been formed during the Dreamtime, which is the ancient period when all living things were created, and whose spirits continue into the present.

The massive rock is thought to have once been a Dreamtime ancestor who roamed the Earth and created the features of the landscape, before turning into the distinctive landform it is today. Archaeological findings indicate that humans settled in the area more than 10,000 years ago. Uluru is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland. We've been thinking about this for a very long time," Wilson said.

What does it mean for tourism?

In 2010, the board said it would give the tourism industry a minimum of 18 months' notice to accommodate the change into itineraries and marketing campaigns. Visitors will therefore be able to climb Uluru for another two years, though it will be discouraged.

Wilson said in his speech that tourists will continue to be welcomed to the area, saying: "We are not stopping tourism, just this activity."

John O'Sullivan, managing director of Tourism Australia, told CNN he welcomed the decision.

"It's always been the wishes of the traditional owners that visitors to the park don't climb to the top of Uluru, and I think that's something both domestic and international tourists will understand and respect," he said.

"The industry is being given plenty of notice and I certainly don't think the decision will in any way impact people's overall enjoyment of this important sacred site and iconic visitor attraction."

Avid Australian traveler and retiree Heather White last visited Uluru from Melbourne in 2015 and told CNN that climbing the rock is completely unnecessary to savoring the experience.

"It's akin to climbing the Vatican or Westminster Abbey. It is a truly beautiful and spiritual place: you don't need to climb it to experience that."

Canadian events organizer and writer Theresa Winters, who is a Sydney resident, said she chose not to climb it, but her friend did.

"While he was burning hot and on the edge of heat stroke, I got an amazing tour from a guide around the base, who took us through geology and history of the Aboriginal people who have used it for millennia. A much better experience."

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