top 46 places to go in 2013 and, to my surprise, only one of those destinations was in the Southern Cone countries. Apart from the singularly curious number – why not the top 50? – even more surprising, on another level, was that the Southern Cone choice came not from Argentina, Uruguay or Chile. Rather, it was the Falkland Islands which, claimed writer Michael Luongo, “are a cold, rugged Galápagos-like spot” where oil money in the capital of Stanley (pictured above) is likely to “transform [its] ethnic, economic and social character, driving development in this tiny, eccentric village of about 2,000 year-round residents.”
I know Luongo slightly and, even within the limits of the single paragraph the NYT allotted him, I found his generalizations superficial. While the Falklands are indeed a wildlife paradise with penguins, other birds, and marine mammals, they lack the species diversity of the tropical Galápagos – but the sub-Antarctic Islands compensate with phenomenally large populations of relatively few species. As for the need to visit soon because oil investment will change the place beyond recognition, that train left the station a quarter century ago, when local government first granted fishing licenses to foreign squidders and others. Income from those licenses has helped make the Islands’ small population one of the most prosperous peoples on Earth, with a per capita GDP of roughly US$32,000.
Oil is still a question mark, as none of the offshore fields is a sure thing, but tourism has added to that prosperity and Argentina, ironically, has recently made its own contribution despite its aggressive irredentism toward the Islands, which it calls the Malvinas. In late 2011, the combative administration of President Cristina Fernández decreed that vessels docking in the Islands without Argentine permission would not be welcome in Argentine ports including Buenos Aires and Ushuaia (whose port, pictured below, gets significant cruise ship traffic).
The idea, apparently, was to enforce an embargo to make life more difficult for the Islanders, but it’s at least partially backfired. Earlier this year, Ushuaia businessmen were indignant that the new rules stopped several cruise ships from anchoring in town and, consequently, kept passengers from spending millions of dollars in the city.
More recently, the British line P&O has announced that its luxury liners Arcadia and Adonia, which will leave Southampton on round-the-world cruises next month, will skip Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia in favor of Montevideo, the Falklands, and Punta Arenas. Given Argentina’s capricious politics, and the fact that passengers from other cruise ships have been harassed by protestors, they have decided that Argentine ports are simply not worth the trouble.
The Falklands stand to gain. For every cruise passenger who visits, the Islands collect a landing charge of £18 which, in the 2009-10 season, amounted to more than US$1.3 million – a substantial figure in a territory with only about 2,500 permanent residents. That might not be oil money, and it’s only a fraction of the US$18.5 million that fishing licenses earned in the same year, but it’s enough to provide a high standard of living in Stanley.