A tourist who flew through a coronavirus hotspot to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – but was blocked from entering – has been caught breaking into the temporarily closed area, an Indigenous corporation has alleged.
The woman was among almost 40 visitors who arrived from Brisbane on Monday and had their entry to the park blocked by residents of the nearby Indigenous community of Mutitjulu over concerns about the potential spread of coronavirus.
Parks Australia then decided to temporarily close the park.
The Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation said the woman secretly entered the park by bypassing an official entry point, then was found by rangers when she injured her ankle.
Sources within the park have confirmed the allegation.
“They want to get in; they want to do whatever it takes to get in,” MCAC chief executive Thalia Bohl-van den Boogaard said.
Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services has been contacted for comment.
The Northern Territory Government has declared Brisbane a coronavirus hotspot, meaning anyone who has visited the city must undergo a fortnight of supervised quarantine in Darwin or Alice Springs upon arrival in the NT.
Exceptions are made for those who have only transited through a hotspot.
Three of the Monday flight’s 42 passengers were sent into quarantine in Alice Springs upon arrival at the Yulara airport.
Voyages, the company that runs the resort and airport at Yulara, near Uluru, confirmed the remaining 39 passengers would be flown back to Queensland on Thursday without having visited the world-famous landmark – a decision made before the alleged break-in.
It is also confirmed that all other interstate flights to the tourist drawcard have been cancelled until the end of August.
No COVID tests before departure
The alleged incident has heightened concern within the MCAC, which has repeatedly called for stricter rules for tourists since Northern Territory borders reopened in July.
Despite a meeting between stakeholders late last week, the corporation said it learned of the Brisbane flight only late on Sunday night, which led some residents to set up the blockade.
In a statement on Tuesday, Voyages said the guests faced two rounds of screening during their journey and none had entered the desert park during their stay.
But concerns have been raised about the fact that none of the visitors will receive coronavirus tests before their departure.
“We’re happy that they’ll be taken away from the doorstop of Yulara and from the doorstep of Mutitjulu,” Ms Bohl-van den Boogaard said.
“But we would have preferred if they all got tested for coronavirus because that way we would have got certainty about whether they were positive or not.”
The resort company said there was not enough time for the results to come back before the guests’ departure.
A Jetstar spokesperson confirmed the company had cancelled its Brisbane to Uluru services through August and was contacting customers with bookings.
They said the company was reviewing arrangements beyond that month.
Troubled sector faces further headaches
Tourism bodies anticipate the park closure and flight cancellations will deal a double blow to local operators, who already struggled through a coronavirus-induced park shutdown that ended less than two months ago.
Patrick Bedford from Tourism Central Australia warned some operators would have to forfeit existing bookings, and laid the blame on a communication breakdown.
“Obviously they had those discussions going on in the background and there should have been a clear outcome, and obviously there wasn’t a clear outcome and that’s had this reaction,” he said.
“This should have been dealt with weeks ago, before the flights came in from Brisbane, to make sure that any issues that would arise were dealt with.
“But safety is paramount here for us in Central Australia to make sure COVID doesn’t come in, so I understand [the residents’] concerns.”
Federal management body Parks Australia has confirmed the temporary closure of the park, introduced in response to Monday’s blockade, has been extended indefinitely.
A spokesperson said the body was working with the Mutitjulu community and the park’s management board.
“The park will remain closed until traditional owners are comfortable with the travel measures put in place by the Northern Territory Government and Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia,” they said.
The corporation said its members opposed the resumption of any flights from declared hotspots but left the door open to the park reopening after the Thursday flight.
“The people here are happy for people from safe spaces to come in and visit the park, but that flight was just the last straw where people said this is an unacceptable risk,” Ms Bohl-van den Boogaard said.
“We cannot keep the park open with this happening.”