SHARPLY falling ticket sales to the national park housing the great stone monolith of Uluru have left tourism operators searching for ways they can put the ''solid'' back into ''solid rock''.
The latest figures for ticket sales to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Central Australia totalled 257,761 last year, a 6 per cent decrease on the previous year and down from a peak of 394,315 in 2001, according Parks Australia.
Of the nearly 260,000 visitors last year nearly 160,000 of them were Australians.
To put those figures in perspective, more Australians visited Malaysia (257,300) and Hong Kong (228,900) in 2011-12, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, than visited one of the world's most instantly recognisable natural attractions.
The percentage of visitors who climb Uluru is declining, too. The request by the rock's traditional owners, the Anangu, for visitors to not climb seems to have been heard, with a survey last year of park visitors finding just over 20 per cent making the trek.
Parks Australia will reassess the climb's future when the figure falls below 20 per cent and has installed climb counters to better monitor numbers.
It is hoped a largely completed $30 million revamp of Ayers Rock Resort, including new indigenous-themed activities, such as cultural dancing, boomerang-throwing, and dot-painting workshops and an upgrade of the five-star Sails in the Desert hotel will revive the rock's tourism fortunes.
Since May 2011 the resort has been owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation, although it has only been operating the resort for the past six months.
''We've had notes and emails come in after people have stayed [under the previous management] - if they have one regret they wish they'd stayed longer because they didn't realise the impact it would have on their family,'' says Ray Stone, a senior executive with Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, operators of the resort on behalf of the corporation. ''This is a sacred place. Most people feel it when they go around whether they're Australian or from different parts of the world. There is a spirituality to the place.''
Chris Hill, the co-owner of Uluru Camel Tours, hopes the changes will not only increase visitor numbers but encourage tourists to spend more time in the area.
''[Australians] jump on a plane, go see Uluru and say, 'I've seen the Red Centre'. Well, sorry to say, you haven't seen the Red Centre,'' he says.
''We've got amazing things on the outskirts [such as walks at Kata Tjuta, formerly known as The Olgas].
''When you go to Egypt, you don't just go to the pyramids and say, 'That's it - I've seen it.' You go see the tombs, the galleries, you make quite a holiday. People come out here, they give it five minutes to look around, and hop back on the plane.''
The writer and the photographer were guests of Voyages, Accor and Qantas.