The traditional owners of Kakadu National Park have threatened to shut it down amid anger at federal authorities for letting the site fall into neglect.
The Unesco World Heritage site, which is jointly managed by Kakadu's traditional owners and the federal agency Parks Australia, has long been a bucket list destination but recent years have seen a sharp decline in international visitors in particular.
Experts have blamed frequent closures of popular locations at Kakadu, including due to disrepair, which has created uncertainty among tourists about what they might actually get to see at the famous destination, according to an ABC Four Corners investigation on Monday.
The Twin Falls have been shut for two years because of the poor condition of a crucial creek crossing, while the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Yellow Water was closed for a year to undergo refurbishment.
A popular rockpool at Maguk has not been reopened since a tourist drowned there in 2019, while the natural infinity pools at the iconic Gunlom Falls were closed to the public last year.
As a result, numbers of overseas visitors have plummeted, from more than 50 per cent down to just 17 per cent of all visitors to Kakadu, even before COVID-19.
"International tourism, sadly, to Kakadu has been on the decline, and not because Kakadu is any less of a destination," general manager of Tourism Top End, Glen Hingley, told Four Corners.
"But part of it was the uncertainty and the irregularity that would happen for tour operators around access announcements and closures of certain parts of the park."
Part of the concern has been a lack of consultation with traditional owners and local groups before access to parts of the park were restricted.
"We had a number of fantastic boutique tour operators who already had forward bookings throughout 2020 and beyond that included these parts of the park that were — without any consultation, without any understanding — just announced as closed," Mr Hingley said.
"It has such a devastating effect on the future of tourism if it doesn't have certainty, doesn't have an understanding around access."
A rift between the park's co-managers was worsened when Parks Australia commissioned a track upgrade at Gunlom Falls that was built too close to a sacred site, despite the objections of traditional owners.
The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority has filed a charge against Parks Australia over the matter, which is now before the court.
Concerns have also been raised about staffing cuts, maintenance issues, and that Kakadu faced huge threats of fire and feral animals.
Traditional owners have been so disheartened by how the iconic site is being managed, they said they were willing to shut down Kakadu to tourists completely.
Jonathan Nadji, a traditional owner and a member of the board that oversees Kakadu, was almost killed in a 2019 fire at the East Alligator Ranger Station that caused about $1 million of damage. It was later claimed there weren't any rangers available to fight the fire due to staff cuts.
Mr Nadji said he was willing to shut down one of its biggest tourist attractions, the lookout and rock art at Ubirr, to send a message to Parks Australia.
"It's about time we started making an impact by basically shutting down the park. And I will shut down Ubirr," he told Four Corners.
"We should start looking ahead, start sorting this place out, but we will close it to make our point."
Traditional owner and Kakadu board member Mai Katona told the program Parks Australia didn't listen to the traditional owners before making decisions about the site.
"Here in Kakadu, we've got a joint management arrangement with Parks Australia, and the land is supposed to be organised in a joint management fashion but it doesn't. And Parks Australia doesn't realise that they're running a bi-cultural organisation," she said.
"It's a two-way system that should be operating, but they don't listen to the Aboriginal people. They don't listen to our suggestions."
Tour guide Mandy Muir described the feeling in Kakadu as "tense".
"A lot of traditional owners and family groups have not been happy with the way that things have been run here within the park, and it's kind of fallen on deaf ears," she said.
"Even some experts are telling us that the park has been deteriorating for a number of years now.
"It seems like it's being run from far and beyond, meaning Canberra. We need people on the grounds, at the grassroots level, dealing, talking with our people."
The Federal Government will invest $276 million to help upgrade tourist attractions, infrastructure and roads at Kakadu National Park over the next 10 years.
In a statement to Four Corners, Parks Australia said Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley was listening to traditional owners and working towards significant changes, including investing in local jobseeking and career advancement programs for local indigenous people.