Chile: Easter Island is left without tourism: “The situation is one of collapse” | International

The 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki, on Easter Island.
The 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki, on Easter Island.Chakarin Wattanamongkol (getty images)

Rapa Nui, baptized as Easter Island after the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen discovered it on Easter Day 1722, is facing its third Easter closed as a result of the pandemic. The remote Chilean triangle located in the middle of the Pacific waters, whose economic muscle is tourism, faces an explosive cocktail: unemployment at 58%, according to data from the municipality; a rise in basic products (a kilo of bread reaches 4.10 dollars, double the national average); a hospital without an Intensive Care Unit system; and the international airport taken over by a family that claims the land. “The situation was worrying, then it was critical and today we are in collapse,” warns Uko Tongariki Tuk, head of the island’s Tourism Department.

At the end of last year, Easter Islanders participated in a citizen consultation on the reopening of the island. 70% approved resuming commercial flights for tourists to return from last February. However, non-compliance with health criteria, which required that 80% of the population be vaccinated, prevented it from happening. Today they have already overcome that barrier, but there is still no date for reopening, which has the population of 7,700 desperate.

Mayor Pedro Edmunds, who has served for five periods on an itinerant basis since 1994, acknowledges that part of the community points to him as being responsible for not opening. “I want to open, but in a responsible way. That entails large investments. We need to strengthen the health system, fix and clean the Rapa Nui Park, hire personnel… ”, he lists by phone. One of his great concerns is that there is still almost 20% of the population that is not vaccinated, and that with a 15-bed hospital they cannot risk having “a complex case.” “We have to guarantee that a patient with severe covid can be transferred to the mainland,” he maintains. Easter Island is part of the Chilean region of Valparaíso, located 3,600 kilometers away. From the time a serious patient is notified until an ambulance plane drops him off at a hospital on land, at least 15 hours pass.

The Easter Island City Council is in talks with five ministries of the new government of Gabriel Boric. Although the situation has different artists, Edmunds has focused his efforts on helping them Economy, considering that 71% of the population lives from tourism. More than a hundred businesses have closed and, despite the municipal Pro Employment program -which employs more than 800 people-, around 2,000 islanders have moved to the mainland due to lack of work.

Melinka Huke, 41, was a tour guide. She has always had a garden that has now become her main source of income. With the closure of the island, she went from earning 1,200 dollars a month to almost 500. “Before, she sold 10 kilos of bananas in a matter of minutes. Today I’ve been eating bananas for two days and nothing…”, she comments on the phone. Huke sees how the situation has worsened between last year and this year. “There is no longer purchasing power. At 20.00 the streets are empty. People don’t go out anymore, ”she maintains.

In a minute sent this week, the mayor requested 2.5 million dollars a month to strengthen the health system and another 4 million to reactivate the 7,000-hectare national park, where the monumental statues called ‘moais’ are located, declared a World Heritage Site. Humanity by UNESCO. “Now the ball is in their court,” says Edmunds, adding: “I hope to receive a letter by the end of the week with the government’s investment and commitment and together with that set the reopening date.” The mayor anticipates that this will occur gradually in the second semester.

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Before the pandemic, Easter Island received 156,000 visitors a year, which translated into 120 million dollars for the economy. “To the cut in income”, Tongariki Tuk states, “we must add the increase in the price of gas, of basic products, in addition to the issue of mental health. People need to leave the island, there are many who have relatives in Santiago and still cannot go to see them. It is dramatic that they have to cry to get on a list and be able to get out. We need an escape route.” The 14 commercial flights are suspended, but LATAM offers one humanitarian flight per week on a cargo plane, where 30 people can leave and 10 return. The list of applicants to leave reaches 400 people, according to the Tourism Department.

Due to the general rise in products (inflation is at 9.4%), the island must face the fact that practically all inputs are imported, which means an extra cost to the final price. There are loads that arrive by plane and others by ship. “A freight costs three and a half times more than any national freight. It is much more expensive to bring a kilo of anything to the island than from Santiago to New York, which is 8,000 kilometers away,” claims Edmunds, who claims to have alerted the Sebastián Piñera government of the situation on four occasions. “I never received an answer. Neither from him, nor from his ministers, ”he maintains.

The mayor has hopes in the new Boric Administration. Not only in the possible economic aid, but also in the conflict that concerns the Roa family, which since the 1960s has been demanding territorial restitution in the area where the Mataveri Airport is located. For months now, fifty relatives of the clan have taken over the international air base. A negotiation with them is another of the key factors so that the island, after 24 months closed, can once again receive tourists.

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