Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke out against plans to stop people climbing tourist hotspot Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, as debate raged about the ban.
Rudd said it would be "very sad" if visitors couldn't climb the giant red rock, one of Australia's most recognizable landmarks along with Sydney's Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef.
Advertisement"I think it would be very sad if we got to the stage where Australians, and, frankly, our guests from abroad weren't able to enjoy that experience," he told local radio.
Parks officials this week announced plans to end the popular climb on cultural and safety grounds following consultations with the Aboriginal community, which owns the site and regards it as sacred.
Environment Minister Peter Garrett, former frontman of rock band Midnight Oil, said there were "strong reasons" for the ban, with about 30 tourists known to have died on the steep ascent.
But Rudd said people should have "appropriate access" to the huge rock in Australia's desolate Outback.
"I've run into people from abroad who've climbed it and have had a great experience," he said.
David Ross, director of the Central Land Council, which administers Uluru, immediately hit out at Rudd's comments.
"Prime Ministers come and go," he said in a statement. "Kevin Rudd won't be around forever. One day he'll be gone but Aboriginal people won't. They'll still be there watching people leave tracks up over their sacred site."
Central to the creation mythology of local tribes, Uluru was handed back to its traditional owners in 1985 and elders have reluctantly permitted visitors to walk over it.
Signs erected at the site ask people not to climb the rock out of respect for the Aboriginal community, but about one-third of the 350,000 annual visitors still do so.
Local officials claim fully closing Uluru would worsen Australia's steadily declining tourist numbers, and Rudd said public safety and other concerns could be addressed through appropriate management plans.
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