Death of an Industry – Parks Victoria’s demolition of Grampians climbing tourism

In this article we explain how Parks Victoria’s ham-fisted approach to management is heavily compromising the viability and integrity of climbing guiding in the Grampians and Arapiles. We hold them to account for the imminent destruction of a 30+ year old industry that was once a shining beacon of light for regional tourism. Already struggling with a decade of natural disasters, surprise climbing bans and steady anti-climber sentiment from PV – the recent Covid19 outbreak is most certainly the final nail in the coffin for many of these small businesses.

Lookout Point & the surprise SPA

In our previous article Chalky Business we briefly mentioned the recent discovery that the small but popular cliff of Lookout Point Wall near Halls Gap was apparently in a Special Protection Area where rock climbing is deemed “not appropriate” by PV . This was a total surprise to the guiding community who use this area and also regular Grampians climbers, who had been climbing there since the 1980s. The author of the 2019 print guidebook to the area Steve Toal was baffled by the announcement. But the key thing here is that PV was happily allowing recreational rock climbing, and most importantly commercial guiding, at this area until December last year (10 months after the so-called SPA bans were suddenly being enforced). How was that possible? Incompetence reigns supreme at PV.

Take a read of PV’s email to Licensed Tour Operators (LTOs) sent on the 18th March below:

“With the support of Traditional Owner groups, licences will also be updated to provide access to Lookout Point Wall, near Halls Gap, from Wednesday 1 April 2020. Conversations with Traditional Owners groups have confirmed that this climbing area, though inside a Special Protection Area, is far enough from the known art sites to be less likely to cause harm. Traditional Owners support making this climbing area available to all licensed tour operators.”

Where do we start? All this debacle is really proving is that PV are willing to bend their own rules about no climbing in SPAs time and time again (this is the third SPA area now open to some form of climbing). And the climbing is “far enough from the known art sites to be less likely to cause harm“? Less likely than what? According to our sources the art site is not at the climbing cliff itself or on a section of cliff that anyone accessing the climbing area walks past. There is no danger from climbers and never has been. The Grampians Peaks Trail is also in the same vicinity and apparently passed all the checks and balances required to allow casual walkers to be in the area without complex bureaucracy.

Hangin’ Out guiding at Lookout Point Wall – located right above the tourist hub of Halls Gap

Harsh regulations introduced

PV’s solution to this climbing problem in the SPA that encompasses Lookout Point Wall is to introduce the same system they put in place at Summer Day Valley and BARC Cliff last year. They like to call it a favor and a win for the climbing community (no, we don’t jest). What does it mean? Lookout Point is only accessible to Licensed Tour Operators (LTOs) who now have to abide by a complex system of advance bookings, signage, inductions and time limits. Recreational climbers are flatly prohibited.

Did the climbing community or the guiding companies suggest this new complex system? Hell no! Apparently a site based booking system was first proposed by PV back in 2006 as part of the fire recovery process. The guiding companies said it was unnecessary. A “whole of park” booking system was mentioned in the 2014 Grampians Peaks Trail Master Plan but was never discussed with LTOs. One guiding company was shocked when we showed them the relevant page discussing it:

The new system was forced upon the guiding industry in the middle of last year amoungst the furor of the broad climbing bans. It was not created with direct collaboration of LTOs and PV and thus had many flaws. It was thrown at these companies at the very last minute with little chance for complaint. More about that later. Lets go back to Lookout Point Wall for a bit…

Quick history lesson

The history behind the Special Protection Area that encompasses Lookout Point Wall is an interesting one. It was not part of the 2003 Plan of Management in which the majority of SPAs were first listed. In 2014, a local climbing guiding company rediscovered an Aboriginal site near Sundial Lookout and reported it to Parks Victoria. PV then apparently created a new SPA to cover this area which also encircled Lookout Point Wall (apparently adding SPAs can be done at any time – but changing or removing them is apparently not possible outside of a once every 17 year new Plan of Management process – go figure!). What PV didn’t do was mention anything at the time about climbing now being “not appropriate” since it was in an SPA. The commercial operator continued his regular and well publicized guiding business at Lookout Point Wall for a further 5 years unmolested by PV. That was until a team of cultural assessors visited the area late last year. They were there to find any evidence of climbing within cultural heritage SPAs as part of research for the 2020 Plan of Management. You can imagine the surprise of the assessors that commercial climbing was happening in an SPA right near a major tourist lookout!

Now what is truly bizarre is that the owner of this climbing business has lived near Halls Gap for 20 years, is on a first name basis with many of the local Grampians PV rangers, pays a fee to PV to run his business and, most importantly, has been the sole commercial operator of Lookout Point Wall for almost 20 years. Why did PV not feel it was worth letting him know there was problems brewing with the SPA around his main business location a year ago? Well the recent assessments (and new convoluted booking system) is actually managed by the Melbourne head office of PV! They are quite separate to the day to day workings of the Grampians office – and don’t appear to coordinate much. It is no surprise that the Melbourne based team of assessors are both clueless about climbing in the Grampians and the details of the SPAs. This has also been one of the main struggles that climbing businesses are having – all discussion about fixes have to be had with head office – not the Halls Gap local office. And just like with recreational climbers – PV have staunchly resisted any attempt to actually work directly with guiding companies when creating these new management solutions, preferring to make it up and present it as fait accompli at the eleventh hour. This appears to be a tactical maneuver to protect the top levels of the PV organization.

Let’s reverse a bit and delve into the details of the guiding business. There are many factors that make a guiding business viable – and unfortunately PV lacks a basic understanding of what those are despite gleefully introducing an iron fisted approach to managing it.

Why is SDV and LPW so important?

Lots of people ask why these LTOs can’t just do their guiding in other locations away from these SPAs? There are hundreds of crags and thousands of climbs in the Grampians – why not switch sites to something less Specially Protected™. It’s actually not what you might think – it has little to do with the actual cliffs and climbs and more to do with what PV have already built there. Both SDV and LPW are crags located in areas that have the infrastructure to handle many people. They have the perfect combo of well maintained roads, multiple carparks and places for buses, proper toilets, hardened approach tracks, easy access for top-roping, juggy vertical cliffs, shady or sunny options, no loose rock, cliff bases that don’t erode and easy access for emergency services. Guides also know the anchor setups off by heart as they are long established. You can’t just pick any old random cliff and start guiding there – it just won’t work. You only have to look at the erosion of The Watchtower to see a cliff not suitable for guiding – it lacks a toilet, large carpark and the ground erodes easily for starters. Worth noting as well is that Summerday and Lookout Point are also now iconic in the tourist industry – or at least they were. The Wall of Fools arch abseil was the thing to do until it was banned last year. It featured in travel TV shows and magazine articles the world over.

One of thousands who abseiled the arch at Summer Day Valley before it was closed last year

PV also lacks an understanding of the two major types of guiding – and how these seemingly similar activates can be effected in totally different ways by their new booking system.

Tourism or Education?

LTOs for rockclimbing in the Grampians conduct two main types of business – “tourist” and “outdoor education”. Tourists are the backpackers and families who book a one off session on a whim, sometimes on the day they want to do the activity. They arrive in town and ask at the information center what activities are available – or scroll though TripAdvisor. The might only spend a couple of hours in the morning doing their first abseil or climb and are then be back in town for lunch. It’s a quick adventure where they entrust the guide to organize the whole thing – it’s about fun not instruction. These tourists are also in the area spending money on other “touristy” things such as accommodation, meals and activities (zoos, winerys etc). A tourist can be drawn to an area for a specific reason, for example they “always wanted to try rock climbing” but then spend their money on other things whilst they are there. Think couples on romantic weekends away wanting to spice up their mundane city life. Tourists are marketed to by tourism organizations (i.e. Grampians Tourism) and the State government (i.e. Visit Victoria) in a push to grow (or at least maintain) regional economies. Tourist operators, such as climbing guides, require the goodwill of Parks Victoria and the State government to help promote their activity through regional advertising and basic infrastructure (roads, toilets etc). They obviously also supply the venue (the park).

On the other end of the spectrum are outdoor education groups. These could be the army, football team, a school or a university. These are large groups – upwards of 30 people are common. The aim of these masses is more education based than just casual tourism – it could be a simple team building exercise or part of a skills lesson in how to survive in the bush. Many people will have seen the hapless school kids with huge packs marching through Hollow Mtn carpark as part of a school outdoor program aiming to make them better citizens. They are usually either camping (Stapylton Campground is popular for this) or at self contained dorm style accommodation nearby. There is little if any opportunity for the participants to spend money in the wider “tourist” economy of the region. What makes these educational groups different for an LTO is that these groups usually book their activity many months in advance, sometimes even a year. These groups are usually following a tradition that may have been going on for decades – the school returns year after year to the same location with the same guiding company. It is a solid reliable gig for the LTOs outside of the tourist seasons. Guides use these locked in bookings so they can invest in the future of their company or scrape on through bad seasons such as the recent bush fires & coronavirus outbreaks.

Now both of these types of business have been heavily affected by the new changes to climbing access in the Grampians and Arapiles – and especially the complex booking/permit systems in SPAs. So where do we start? Let’s look at the Parks Victoria permit that allows them to operate.

3 Month Permit nightmare continues

In the middle of last year, with the imminent expiry of the usual 12 month permit for climbing, Parks Victoria announced a temporary 3-month extension to each operators permits for Summer Day Valley. This of course is their bread and butter guiding location for the reasons stated above. This announcement was made around 5pm on a Friday – with the permits due to expire on the following Monday. Cutting it fine seems like standard operating procedure at PV, but that’s not a surprise as it is also the SOP of politicians who want to push through something problematic with no oversight. Since that first three month extension in July last year – there has been two further 3-month extensions for rock climbing permits.

Think of these permits as rental agreements on property. The permits give access to land for the LTOs to conduct their business for a set period of time. Now imagine you are only allowed a 3-month rental agreement, despite previously working in the location for over 20 years and basing your entire company structure around this singular location (for all the reasons given above). PV, the landlord, issued this most recent statement to LTOs last week:

“Parks Victoria will continue discussing options for further licence extensions beyond 30 June 2020 with Traditional Owner groups and will also work with LTOs to develop a code of conduct. If licence conditions continue to be met, further extensions may be considered, and Parks Victoria will talk to operators about future options.”

Wow – so generous thy lord. Your 20 year old business “may be considered” – or maybe not. Don’t stress though! The discussions between PV and TOs about the future of your business is entirely opaque so any decisions made you will just have to accept. Next!

Not only does this suddenly put a stable and viable business into immediate jeopardy – it also blocks any ability for a company to take bookings into the future. Remember those outdoor education groups mentioned above? They usually get booked a year out – but with a 3-month maximum window of the permit it is not possible to guarantee anything. Those big jobs that help pay for the off-season tourist decline? They are no longer possible to book. This is the reality of LTOs in the Grampians. They cannot guarantee to any client wishing to book a session in advance of 3 months if the session can go ahead. Now imagine these extensions are only being announced days out from expiring! When Monday rolls they either shut up shop because the permits are not renewed or they are renewed and they have to start madly ringing to drum up business to survive the next 3-months. The stress is mindboggling for these small businesses. And this is just one of the many new PV initiatives that are crippling to the industry.

Site bookings & time limits

The three SPA crags where LTOs are allowed to operate, Summerday Valley, BARC Cliff and Lookout Point Wall, are now managed by PV using a site booking system. What appears on the surface as a fairer system actually destroys local businesses and benefits larger corporations and out of towners. How? Each area has to be booked in advance, either by phone or email, and according to PV’s latest email must be made with “at least 48 hours’ notice” of an activity session. Bing bing. Any guesses on why that is a serious problem?

Those tourists are ringing up either the day before or the morning of the day they want to get out and climb. This is a spontaneous activity – not something planned more than two days in advance. Climbing is also an outdoor activity at the whim of weather. It’s all well to book in something 2 weeks out – but on that day it might be snowing or 48’C – whilst the next day is perfect weather. A tourist wants a pleasant day – this is another difference between outdoor education and tourist guiding (the Army probably WANTS it’s members to suffer a bit). PV’s structured booking system offers no flexibility for tourists. But it’s worse. LTO’s are required to book either a morning or afternoon session – so they can’t even delay a session for a few hours to wait for a weather window – or do a late start because it is too bloody freezing in the mornings in winter.

And those bad consequences for small business local operators? We have had multiple reports about large out-of-town LTOs running “outdoor education” groups who are booking out the entire of Summer Day Valley for a week straight – blocking any of the small businesses from using the area for small scale casual tourism. In the good ol’ days of self regulation it was common to share ropes and walls with multiple companies. Now the fear of doing anything wrong and thus loosing their permit means no operator is willing to share a wall with an operator who has no official booking.

What is the new booking process? There is no online system where a company can see future bookings. It’s far more archaic than that. If a tourist rings up a guiding company and wants to book an activity – that company then has to email or ring the main switchboard at the PV head office in Melbourne, wait up to a day for a reply and then contact the potential client. At best this is an annoying waste of peoples time, at worst all the sites were booked out months in advance by a large outdoor education group and the client is let down. Imagine the backwards and forward phone calls between the guide, the client and PV to try and lock in a simple booking that might net the guide a hundred dollars. It should be plainly obvious that running a tourist business without a stable place to do this business is nigh impossible. Lookout Point Wall was historically used by just the one operator, Hangin’ Out, who focused on the tourist market – now it is open for anyone to book it out months in advance.

The obvious other loser in this new system is experienced recreational climbers who, even when using a permitted guide, cannot dash around the entire of Summer Day Valley and polish off the classics on a single day. They are now forced to stay on a single small section of wall containing a handful of routes. Thus the individual guided climber industry is dead as a doormat as well for these areas.

PV have divded up the area into small sectors which have to be booked seperatly.

Lack of positive messaging

Then there is the climbing image problem we covered in our last article – Target Climbers -Why the Negativity PV? Parks Victoria has been going the extra mile to paint climbers, and thus the climbing guiding and outdoor education industry, in the worst possible light. We won’t rehash that here – go and read that article. It’s quite shocking how uniquely targeted climbers are compared to other outdoor pursuits such as bush walking and mountain biking. Do we have direct evidence that this bad press is effecting the business viability of Grampians climbing tourism? Absolutely. Multiple guides have told us that they have had bookings cancelled because of the bad image that climbing now has. One particular company had an entire school session cancelled because the school did not want to be associated with a “permit to harm” of Aboriginal sites that has been introduced into Summer Day Valley to allow climbing in an SPA. The unfortunate wording of that permit is that harm is going to happen – when that is not the case at all. Casual tourists are now not booking climbing trips as they associate it with some vague racist land right issues that they know little about but have absorbed the “vibe” from the media. We have heard multiple accounts of the general public abusing climbers at random for being disrespectful (some associating it with Uluru). The signage installed by Parks Victoria at sites being used for climbing tourism is further tarnishing its image.

Mistrust runs deep

The lack of faith in the actions of guides is apparent when you read this email sent from PV to LTOs last week:

Do they think climbers are so cold that they will find human remains and just keep climbing over them? This is not Everest! It does seem a little odd that LTOs are being told not to contact the police first when they discover potential human remains. You know what human remains are found regularly by climbers? Suicides. If you have been climbing long enough the discovery of the remains of deceased person is bound to happen. There are even route names on this theme “Remains of the Day” and “Flying Grandmas” are two that come to mind. (seeing people jumping or having to talk someone down from a suicide attempt is an unfortunate part and parcel of being a climber). The author of this article has found the remains of a climber that had gone missing decades earlier. The document is entirely unclear how you are supposed to identify these remains are Aboriginal Ancestral as opposed to just the usual dead body. Talking to guides and others (and a quick google search) it doesn’t appear that finding Aboriginal Ancestral remains has ever occurred in the Grampians. We found one news item from 2019 where a body was unearthed in road construction 150km from the Grampians (we can only presume PV thinks climbers now use bulldozers to make roads). Considering the speed of body decay out in the open it seems highly unlikely a climbing guide will find an ancient body. So this appears to be a huge and unnecessary beat up targeting climbing guides about a true hypothetical. In this day and age of DNA and crime scene dramas everyone knows not to touch human remains. Surely it didn’t require such a document to be sent to LTOs?

The end is nigh

Is it any wonder that the local guiding industry is hemorrhaging clients? PV’s total lack of empathy towards these local businesses is especially galling considering how long they have been in operation and the positive impact their businesses have on the region. PV may think its complex solutions are doing the climbing community a favor by allowing LTO access to climbing areas that were marked as Special Protection Areas. They would clearly love us to forget that they allowed climbing in these areas for 17 years before suddenly revoking permission. They didn’t just cast a blind eye to climbers – they once actively promoted climbing as a positive thing and built infrastructure in the park to help these businesses. Now they spend hundreds of thousands on policing an industry that has never been responsible for cultural heritage damage. In fact, the guides we talked to now mention they spend significant time trying to manage wayward tourists who wander into places like Summerday Valley and start messing about near cultural heritage areas. These guides are protectors not destroyers. If these companies, with 20+ years experience, are forced to close – who replaces their experience and local knowledge?

The Future – is there one for climbing tourism?

PV actually have a responsibility to help drive local tourism – and climbing is one of the most popular recreational activates in the Grampians. PV’s own recently released Consultation Summary Report for the new Plan of Management contained an interesting chart that shows cliff based sports such as rock climbing/bouldering/abseiling combined would be the 2nd most popular activity that people love in the park.

Climbing could be a major part of the local tourism industry if Parks Victoria actually tried to understand how climbing works and not put roadblocks in front of the basic business model of freedom of movement. As recently as 2017 the friction between some Traditional Owners and climbing tourism appeared non-existent. A page in the Wotjobaluk Country Indigenous Tourism Feasibility Report clearly shows a proposal to blend Indigenous culture with rock climbing at Arapiles.

This would have been a big economic win for both groups but now seems like ancient history.

Right now the whole industry is balanced like a Jenga puzzle – with PV tugging desperately at the bottom piece wearing a pair of mittens with their eyes closed. Do they know the whole thing is about to fall down? After the restrictions were put in place last year large operators have been pulling out and moving their programs to places like Arapiles where access is less restrictive. But with that area also under scrutiny by PV – and one of the main guided areas now sealed shut to any visitors – you would be stupid to think that Arapiles is a long term viable business solution. Local Grampians operators are genuinely considering total career changes – taking their families with them. Why? There are plenty of signs of even more restrictions to come. A recent cultural heritage survey of some 125 crags apparently unearthed Aboriginal sites at 28 of them. Will PV tell us what crags they are? No. Will they be continuing to introduce a system of highly restrictive management solutions at these areas? We have to wait until June to find out when they release the draft Management Plan to the wider public. What’s the bet it will be at 5pm on a Friday?

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