This is a half-hearted measure at best. Many if not most of Paine’s visitors are foreigners, and very few of them bring children under age 15. Chilean families do, of course, but a relative handful of them are trekking the backcountry as most overseas visitors do. It’s hard to see this as an effective incentive for foreign visitors to head to the gateway city of Puerto Natales (whose economy depends on the park) and on to Paine, given the publicity the fire has gotten and the fact that the Argentine settlement of El Chaltén (pictured below), which offers comparable trekking in the adjacent Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, costs nothing to get in (other sectors of the park, most notably the Moreno Glacier, do impose a charge).
I’ve always objected to differential fees for foreigners, which both Argentina and Chile do in a haphazard manner, and not only because it’s flagrantly discriminatory (and don’t get me started on “reciprocity fees”). As a policy, differential charges assume that foreign visitors are more affluent that locals, even if they’re from neighboring countries. From a long-term perspective, it makes a bad impression on budget travelers who, if they make their initial visit as peso-pinching backpackers, might refrain from returning as prosperous professionals.
Still, if the government really wanted to make an impact, it might announce, for example, that park entrance would be free of charge for January and February, or perhaps even through April (when the trekking season ends for all practical purposes). Alternatively, it could include Paine in the new national parks pass, announced last year, that permits entrance into all Chilean parks, except for Paine and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for one calendar year.
Meanwhile, last Sunday’s New York Times revealed its list of 45 places to go to in 2012, and two of them were in southernmost South America: Chilean Patagonia (No. 8), and Chiloé (No. 37). Both figure prominently in the new third edition of my Moon Handbooks Patagonia title; for the former, the Times mentions two new Paine-centric properties, Tierra Patagonia and The Singular, that opened only very recently. The other property is one that’s nowhere remotely close to Patagonia, though it does enjoy a spectacular location less than two hours from Santiago.
For Chiloé, the Times notes that “President Sebastián Piñera has plans to share the island with the rest of the world,” but inexplicably overlooks any express mention of Piñera’s spectacular new Parque Tantauco (pictured above and below), a conservation and tourism project that I explored last February. It does mention the new airport near the city of Castro, which will improve access to the island, and environmental concerns over a 56-turbine wind farm. But the failure to mention Tantauco borders on negligence.