Sunday, June 8, 2008

Is Chile the New New Zealand?

Every Sunday, the Santiago daily El Mercurio dedicates an entire magazine to travel and, because the peso is so strong, more and more Chileans are traveling overseas. In last week's edition, Sebastián Montalva decided to compare Chile and New Zealand as tourist destinations with some interesting insights, but he was also guilty of some oversights.

A caveat for this entry: I've spent years either living or traveling in Chile, and have never been to New Zealand except for a stopover en route from California to Australia, so I obviously know Chile much better, and know New Zealand primarily through reading about it. That said, the geographical similarities are palpable; both occupy comparable Southern Hemisphere latitudes, though New Zealand does not extend into the northern subtropics and tropics, where Chile has extensive deserts. NZ's North Island resembles the Chilean heartland, with its Mediterranean vineyards, while the South Island is an area of lush forests, mountains, and fjords that's similar to Chile's lakes district and northern Patagonia.

Montalva says, in fact, that "Lord of the Rings" could just as easily have been filmed in the landscapes of Chile. So might have "The Last Samurai," also filmed in New Zealand, though given the local hysteria over the filming of the latest James Bond film in the Atacama, using Chile as a stand-in for Japan might have been dicey.

Montalva notes that, despite similar resources, tourism brings New Zealand five times the income that it does to Chile, and wonders why. He says that the numbers of visitors are roughly comparable, but he fails to note that New Zealand's insular isolation means that almost all foreign visitors must travel great distances. Many of Chile's visitors. by contrast, come from neighboring Argentina and other South American countries, and spend less than affluent international travelers who fly into New Zealand.

He does point out differences in language - other things being equal, tourists may prefer destinations where they can communicate with the locals (even if, in many cases, it's only with waiters and desk clerks). Compared to Chile, he says, New Zealand is also tidier and better organized. His main point, though, is that New Zealand does a better job of promoting its natural environment through activities such as whale-watching, which is barely in its nascent stages in Chile, even when Chile's resources may be superior. Pictured above, Chilean Patagonia's almost uninhabited fjords, for instance, are demonstrably wilder and more remote than New Zealand's Milford Sound, but there's been little relatively investment (financial or otherwise) in exploiting them.

With his praise of New Zealand's environmental record, Montalva implies - but never explicitly criticizes - the potential shortcomings of Chile's own commitments. It's worth noting that New Zealand lacks a massive mining industry - Chile's biggest foreign exchange earner, which is counting on the massive development of Chilean Patagonia's abundant but remote hydroelectric resources such as the Río Baker (pictured to the right) for its future energy needs. If that happens, it could preclude Chile's ever establishing a sustainable tourist economy to match New Zealand's.

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