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The 20% myth

The 20% Myth
Conclusion: On days the Climb is Fully open, the proportion of visitors climbing averages 44%!

In its 2010 management plan Parks Australia outlined  a series of measures that it would use to justify a ban on climbing. These are outlined in section 6.3.3 (C):

(c) The climb will be permanently closed when:

  •  the Board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established, or
  • the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, or
  • the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decision to visit the park.
In our opinion the decision to climb, or not, should be left to individuals. But none of the conditions outlined above have been met. Tourists have been omitted entirely from the consultation process and any research on visitor intentions has been conducted by groups strongly biased against the climb making any results statistically meaningless. The third point ignores the fact that the climb is a cultural and natural experience, so when tourists indicate they are visiting for cultural and natural experiences, they maybe including the climb. 

In regard to the second condition that the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent Parks Australia installed pedestrian counters on the climb and recorded data from June 2011 to end of June 2015 to establish the proportion of people climbing. I obtained the results of this data and an analysis through a FOI request. Re-analysis of the data does not support Parks' Contention that the 20% figure has been met when the availability of the climb is taken into account. Instead it shows that on average for days tourists are able to make a fair choice between the climb and other activities, at least 44% choose to climb. The FOI documents also reveal many problems were experienced in obtaining reliable data, with counters being down for much of the assessment period, counters under reporting the number of climbers, calibration issues with counters, and problems calculating total visitor numbers (kids are missing from the 2011 data). It's a mess that does not stand up to scrutiny!

For the period the counters were in place  (between 1/6/2011 to 30/6/2015) Parks Australia's onerous closure criteria meant the climb was fully open a mere 10% of the time (151 days out of 1491). A fair estimation of tourist preferences can only be made for those days that a full range of choices are available when the Park opens. Tourists visiting Ayers Rock are typically under tight time schedules and if a given activity is not available they quickly move onto other options. There is no time to wait at the base of the rock for the climb to open. Most tourists will undertake only one strenuous activity in the morning, either one of the walks at the base, the circuit walk, or the Climb. 

Anyone wishing to look at the data please get in touch and I will pass on the information I received from Parks Australia. 

Under reporting
A significant issue flagged in a report analysing the data for Parks Australia (Becken 2017) is the under reporting of climbers by counters. Feedback from experts suggested a figure of 30% was a fair estimation of the amount of climbers not recorded. This occurs as the counters record groups of climbers, rather than individuals.  Looking over the data the are many instances where counters physically higher on the climb give higher figures than those below. Counters also record data on days the climb is officially closed and sometimes record numbers higher than the number of daily visitors. These problems discussed in internal memos (see below) but apparently never fully rectified. 

Climbing data July 2012- example of reliable records

Climbing data June 2013 - problems emerge

Climbing data October 2013- System falls over and not online till September 2014

"We are pretty Stumped".
Correspondence from Parks Australia to product manufacturer highlighting issues with counters. This from October 2015, outside the timing of the data provided through our FOI request. 


Findings of Parks Statistical Analysis
Parks Australia commissioned Prof. Susanne Becken of Griffith University to undertake a statistical analysis of climbing data from June 2011 to end of June 2015. Prof Becken's views on the climb can be found in an article she wrote for The Conversation.titled  "Closing Uluru to climbers is better for tourism in the long run" In the article Becken and colleague Michelle Whitford write: Closing Uluru for climbing should be seen as a shining example of sustainable tourism being a vehicle for the preservation, maintenance and ongoing development of culture, traditions and knowledge.

Prof Becken concludes her report on the climb statistics by addressing the 20% question:

The analysis provided evidence that the 20 percent threshold could be exceeded in the busy winter months (although less so in recent years). but is definitely not reached in less busy months. Partly, this is influenced by the shorter opening hours during hot months. When adjusted by 30 percent for groups, the 20 percent threshold is likely exceeded during the peak month (mostly July). Whether this is of concern and suffices to not close the climb under policy 6.3.3 of the UKTNP Management Plan 2010-2020 remains the interpretation of the Board.
To address the main question of whether the proportion of climbers is below or above 20 percent. the answer depends on the method chosen (as illustrated in this report) and also whether particular months are of interest or an average over a year is taken. It is recommended not to use daily count data but to aggregate both climb counts and Park visitors per month (as done in the second type of analysis presented in 4.2). Daily counts are too sensitive to outliers and possible errors. 

Figure 3 of her report shows a wide range in the proportion of climbers on a daily basis. Most notable is the seasonal trend reflecting the effective complete closure of the climb during warmer months, and the gap in data in 2013-2014 associated with the counters not operating. These un-adjusted results show many days where the proportion exceeds 20%. In her report Becken did not separately assess the proportion of climbers on fully open days from those days the climb was only partly open. Partly open days, included in figure 3 below include days the climb was only open for an hour. In these circumstances it is not fair to use these figures to determine the intentions of tourists. 

Re-analysis
Parks data has been re-analysed looking at the proportion of tourists climbing on those days the Climb is Fully open and data is reliable. Only on these days can the intentions of tourist be fully assessed. Data was analysed for:
1. all days the climb was fully open regardless of the data reliability, 
2. all days the climb was fully open for days with reliable data, and 
3. all days the climb was fully open for days with reliable data, adjusted by 30% to account for under-counting.  

Results
1. The average proportion of those climbing for days the climb was fully open regardless of data quality (includes many days of missing counts and days of obvious significant under reporting) is 26.8% (>20%).

2. For days the climb was fully open with reliable data: 34% (>1.5x20%).

3. For days the climb was fully open with reliable data, adjusted upwards by the amount recommended by  Parks Australia  30%: 44% (>2x20%).

Average proportion of climbers on days Tourists are offered a full choice of options (un-adjusted).

Annual averages for years with data: 
2011: 36%
2012: 34%
2013: 29%
2014: Insufficient data
2015: 35%

Conclusions
When visitors are offered a full range of options the proportion deciding to climb Ayers Rock remains well above the 20% cut off mark determined by Parks Australia, and may be as high as 44%. This is the case even when bad data is included. There has also not been a substantive change in the proportion of climbers over the period covered by the data provided. 
There remains no justification for closing this natural wonder based on the proportion of climbers.

References
Becken 2017 Analysis of Uluru visitor climb data and monitoring methods. Griffith University. Obtained under FOI
Parks Australia: Climbing data and associated information obtained under FOI

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