Friday, September 26, 2008

Tourism in a Very Small Place

Relatively few people have ever been to Easter Island - Rapa Nui to its indigenous Polynesian residents - but almost everybody knows something about it. Its enigmatic stone statues, made famous by Thor Heyerdahl (who asked big questions but got almost all the answers wrong), have become global icons. While the numbers who have seen them remain fairly small, tourism is growing every year as it gets easier to reach the island - in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, five hours from Santiago by jet - and the infrastructure mushrooms on a triangular land mass of only 171 square km (66 square miles), with a population of only about 4,000.

If the Chilean government has its druthers, the number of visitors (50,000 last year) may increase dramatically. According to the online Santiago Times, summarizing the Spanish-language original article in the Santiago daily El Mercurio, private investors and government are dedicating US$17 million to modernize the hospital, improve the airport, increase flights, and build even more hotel rooms (the island has about 1,500 beds in accommodations that range from simple B&Bs to Explora's all inclusive Posada de Mike Rapu). This amounts to more than US$4,000 for every man, woman, and child.

What's really startling is that an island that as recently as 2004 received only 24,000 visitors may get 200,000 by the year 2020. This could seriously stress natural resources - Rapa Nui has no potable surface water, for instance, and no easy options for solid waste disposal - on an island whose history has proven its vulnerability to environmental disruption.

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