Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hanging Out in Hanga Roa

At 9:10 a.m. this morning, Santiago time, LAN Airlines flight 841 lifted off for Rapa Nui (better known to English speakers as Easter Island), and a little after 1 p.m. (local time), I walked down the gangplank (yes, they still use gangplanks here) at Hanga Roa’s Aeropuerto Mataveri for, if I remember correctly, the sixth time in nearly 20 years as a guidebook writer. For most people, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but I feel privileged to be able to return at least every third year.

Over a distance roughly equal to that from Boston to San Francisco, the flight west from the mainland takes nearly six hours, but there is a two-hour time difference with the Chilean mainland. After a brief rest at my hotel, set out to walk around the verdant Pacific island village (pictured above), update the map in my book, and get some lunch on a pleasantly cool, slightly breezy day.

LAN is the only airline serving Rapa Nui, though there have long been rumors of competition. Just a few years ago, there were perhaps three flights per week from mainland Chile here, en route to Tahiti, but now there are nine, some of which turn around immediately - that is, Rapa Nui, with its famous moai monuments, has become a destination in itself, rather than just a refueling stop en route to the South Pacific. According to official statistics, more than 32,000 visitors came to the island between January and August of last year - about eight times the population of Hanga Roa (the only significant settlement on the island).

Hanga Roa has roughly 600 hotel rooms and 1,300 beds, so the island lives and dies with tourism with increasingly upscale options - most notably Explora’s new, all-inclusive Posada de Mike Rapu on the outskirts of town. The traditional Hotel Hanga Roa is a construction site in the process of reinventing itself as a spa resort. Yet by the standards of South Pacific islands, accommodations here are remarkably affordable - as little as US$20 per person for a plain but decent double room, and even less for tent camping.

Yet the price of food has risen dramatically - a quick look around town tells me restaurant prices have nearly doubled since my last trip in 2005, and it's hard to find a good restaurant entree for less than about US$15. Nearly everything must be imported, and pressure on local services has risen as well - in fact, one local hotel manager told me, health, education, and other social services are near collapse despite the tourism boom.

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