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Liberal leader's Horizontal Falls closure claims 'unfounded'

David Prestipino -

WA Liberal leader Libby Mettam has returned fire after the Labor government said her claims regarding tourism access at Horizontal Falls in Western Australia were unfounded.

The decision to phase out boat trips by March 2028 through the dangerous falls came after years of consultation with tourism officials, stakeholders and the Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Dambeemangaddee Traditional Owners.

DAC chief executive officer, Cassandra McCumstie said the sacred site, Garaan-ngaddim, was a powerful, sacred place for Traditional Owners and, though mostly calm and safe, was sometimes dangerous, even for their ancestors who lived there year-round.

Traditional Owners had voiced concerns since the 1990s about harmful impacts from tourism on cultural heritage and several serious incidents involving tourists, including in 2022 when more than 20 passengers were injured when their boat struck trouble crossing the falls.

"Traditional Owners culturally would travel through the gaps only for a specific purpose, and always at the right time (neap tides, smooth waters) to show our respect," Ms McCumstie said.

"We've seen how Country responds when people don't respect its power."

The falls, 1,900km north of Perth, are a major tourism drawcard in the Kimberley and a spectacular natural phenomenon, as fast-moving ocean water pushes through giant sandstone rock structures lying perilously close together.

WA environment minister Reece Whitby last week said the Opposition had muddied the waters by suggesting in an online petition that access to the entire Horizontal Falls National Park was closed to tourists, promising to reverse the decision if they won the March 2025 election. 

"Western Australians now have an opportunity to register their opposition to the Cook Labor Government’s decision to lock the public out of the iconic Horizontal Falls in the Kimberley," read the petition, which had close to 7000 signatures by Friday afternoon.

Ms Mettam reiterated her stance on Friday, saying unique eco-tourism attractions like Horizontal Falls gave WA a leading edge attracting international visitors.

"As most tourism experts will point out, eco-adventure tourism is one of the fastest growing activities, designed around activities taking place in unusual, exotic, remote or wilderness destinations," she wrote in a column for The West Australian.

"The principle behind national parks like Horizontal Falls is that they belong to everyone and should be managed to promote and encourage nature-based tourism. We should not be locking them up."

But as Mr Whitby said last week, the park was not closed to tourists and other tourism experiences would continue, while a working group including the DAC would help create additional ones.

"I'm really concerned about some of the negative comments and some of the perceptions out there that tourism is closed ... nothing could be further from the truth," Mr Whitby told ABC Kimberley.

Ms Mettam, who has yet to consult Traditional Owners about the boat rides through the falls being phased out, said on Friday her primary concern was the precedent the decision could set for WA's other national parks.

"WA's national parks were designed to be enjoyed and accessible for all West Australians, in this generation and the next. We must be taking proactive steps to stop anything that threatens that principle," she wrote.

She wrote the closure should not be about "any one group" and cultural and safety considerations could be appropriately addressed, despite not yet speaking with DAC or Traditional Owners.

DAC said it wanted tourism to continue at Horizontal Falls and the decision was not about limiting tourism or closing the park.

"This is not about stopping tourism or closure... Traditional Owners welcome visitors to our beautiful country," Ms McCumstie said.

"We hope that Talbot Bay and Garaan-ngaddim will continue to attract visitors ... but it is about moving away from dangerous thrill rides.

"We believe there are better ways that visitors can experience the magic of Horizontal Falls and support us to protect this sacred site."

Mr Whitby said the Opposition was confusing the community and giving people the false impression that tourism at the falls would stop.

A meeting hosted by the Broome Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week attended by major tourism operators, the Broome Shire, Traditional Owners and other tourism bodies showed a mutual understanding of why the decision was made, he said.

Tourism operators were receiving calls from customers, and had to explain that the full range of other tours were still operational.

Chamber chief executive Sharni Foulkes said people were not aware the whole site was not closed, with tourism operators in the Kimberley flooded with calls, and explaining the full range of other tours at Horizontal Falls were still active.

"I hope people read the full detail and understand the situation in full, before making comments," she told the ABC.

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