Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park closure extended after traditional owners express coronavirus concerns

Parks Australia says a temporary closure of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park will be extended after traditional owners expressed concerns that visitors were transiting through coronavirus hotspot zones on their flight from Brisbane into Yulara on Monday.

Parks Australia on Monday decided to temporarily close the park until midday today after members of the Mutitjulu Aboriginal Community Corporation (MCAC) blockaded an entry point to the park, sparked by the group’s worry that visitors had transited through coronavirus hotspots.

In a statement, Parks Australia said extending that closure was taking into account the organisation’s “utmost respect” for Uluru-Kata Tjuta’s traditional owners.

“At the request of Mutitjulu Aboriginal Community Corporation (MCAC) and following further discussions with MCAC, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, the Central Land Council, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and the Northern Territory Government, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park will remain closed while re-opening protocols proposed by MCAC are considered,” Parks Australia said in a statement on social media.

“We have the utmost respect for Uluru-Kata Tjuta’s traditional owners and are continuing to work in good faith with them and all other parties to keep Mutitjulu residents safe,” the statement said.

Mutijulu is an Aboriginal community about 30 kilometres from Yulara Airport.

Traditional Owners from the area, the Anangu, have ownership of the land contained in the National Park, but have leased it to Parks Australia to manage under a joint agreement.

Glenn Irvine from the MCAC said the organisation wanted all future flights to Uluru from any COVID-19 hotspots to be cancelled.

This would mean travellers from NT declared hotspots would not be able to fly into Yulara Airport.

At the moment those hotspots include: Victoria, Greater Sydney, Port Stephens and Eurobodalla Shire in NSW and Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan in Queensland.

As for the tourists who arrived yesterday, they will all be tested for COVID-19.

Mr Irvine said if there were no positive results returned from that cohort, the park would be reopened.

Why was there a blockade yesterday?

Yesterday, the Mutitjulu community blockaded the entry to Uluru after a flight from the declared coronavirus hotspot of Brisbane arrived at the nearby Yulara airport.

The blockade ended in the afternoon after Parks Australia announced it would temporarily close the park.

A press release from MCAC called for all passengers be transported to Alice Springs for quarantine or return to Brisbane immediately.

As it stands, travellers transiting through COVID-19 hotspot areas do not have to quarantine upon arriving in the NT.

MCAC had remained consistent on their position for months in regards to interstate tourists.

A meeting to discuss the corporation’s concerns was held on Friday and involved MCAC, Parks Australia, Chief Minister Michael Gunner, and Voyagers, the company who operate the airport and accommodation facilities at Yulara.

MCAC chief executive Thalia Bohl-Van Dem Boogaard said the meeting left the corporation with the understanding that no flights would arrive in Yulara from declared COVID-19 hotspots.

Members of the Mutijulu Community Aboriginal Corporation attempt to blockade an entrance into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
The Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation wants all passengers on planes from COVID-19 hotspots to quarantine.(Supplied)

What about the economy?

The CEO of Voyages, Grant Hunt, said the airport had followed all NT health guidelines to the letter and was the only operator in the country using independent contractors to perform contract screening from departure airports.

Mr Hunt said they had introduced temperature checking upon arrival at Yulara Airport as an additional safety measure.

He said he did not understand the singular focus on this airport, when there were more than 400 drive-in travellers in the area from all over the country.

From an economic perspective, Mr Hunt said if the airport was forced to close again, it would stay shut until international arrivals return, meaning 700 jobs would be lost.

“Let me be clear. Without planes, we don’t have a business,” Mr Hunt said.

Behind Uluru is the entrance to the Mutitjulu community.
Behind Uluru is the entrance to the Mutitjulu community.(Emma Sleath)

Who makes the decision to close the park?

The decision of whether the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park remains open or stays closed will rest with Parks Australia.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was closed for three months during the coronavirus pandemic and reopened on June 19.

Mr Gunner said his preference was for all interstate flights into the Northern Territory to arrive in Alice Springs or Darwin.

The Chief Minister said transporting people over 440kms from Yulara Airport to Alice Springs for mandatory quarantine was an additional pressure on staff.

“I want all those planes to come into the Northern Territory to land at once of those places like an Alice Springs or a Darwin, that would be what I want, rather than Yulara, it creates a logistical difficulty for us in taking those people from the Yulara airport to Alice Springs. If we have to do it, we will,” Mr Gunner said.

Yulara Airport is privately run by Voyages and regulated by the Federal Government.

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Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to reopen June 19, tours and cultural centre to remain closed

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park will be open to visitors once more from June 19, Parks Australia has confirmed.

Stage one of the reopening means walking tracks and sunrise and sunset viewing areas will be open, but the cultural centre will remain closed and there will be no guided tours or group activities.

Director of National Parks, James Findlay, said walking paths may also be one-directional or have other restrictions in place, and there were will extra cleaning of high-contact areas along with more handwash stations.

“Visitors can take a walk to Mutitjulu Waterhole, hike around the base of Uluru or explore Kata Tjuta’s breathtaking views,” Dr Findlay said.

Sightseers are asked to keep up social distancing.

Kakadu National Park will also reopen the same day, but for day use only, between 8am and 5pm.

However it will be mostly Territorians that visit the parks, as any interstate visitors must still quarantine for 14 days upon entering the Northern Territory, but from Monday they no longer have to do it in commercial accommodation at their own cost.

From June 19, Uluru sunrise and sunset viewing areas will be open, but the cultural centre will remain closed.(AAP/Lukas Coch)

Accommodation options

Ayers Rock Resort said it will also have its campground and caravan park open from June 19.

Further limited accommodation options will be available from July 1 to coincide with the NT Government’s tourism voucher scheme.

But Grant Hunt, CEO of Voyages, the company that owns the resort, said their other facilities in Yulara will not come online until August, depending on border restrictions being lifted.

“We’re in heavy dialogue with Jetstar in particular about providing flight services from Victoria and New South Wales, that’s the date we’d like to be going from and all our plans are geared around that,” Mr Hunt said.

“All of our tours and activities and restaurants, including Field of Lights, will be open [from August].”

The resort was not expecting many visitors before August, and there was little financial incentive for the partial reopening of accommodation before then.

“It’s probably a loss-making affair, but we think that for the benefit for Territorians, and particularly aligning with the NT Government’s initiative on the voucher system, it’s the least we can do as major players in the Territory,” Mr Hunt said.

“Even until the international borders are reopened, it will be a very much reduced scale of operation.

“We don’t expect full recovery until probably the 2023 financial year, this is a long process for us … we’re just keen to get going, and if the first guests that we have are Territorians, all the better.”

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