Long tourism ban plunges Chile’s Easter Island into severe economic crisis

By Maria M. Mur

Santiago, Feb 10 (EFE).- Images of tourists waiting in line to take photos next to the moai, imposing stone monoliths carved in the shape of human beings by ancient Polynesians, have become a thing of the past on Chile’s Easter Island.

That remote southeastern Pacific territory, also known as Rapa Nui, will soon mark two years without a single tourist, a coronavirus-triggered ban that has caused a severe economic crisis and left its nearly 8,000 mostly tourism-dependent inhabitants struggling to survive.

The mayor of the Easter Island Commune, Pedro Edmunds Paoa, told Efe the situation is “critical” and that local residents have started eating less and become idle for half the day due to a lack of work.

“It’s exasperating, and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said in an interview via Zoom.

Easter Island prohibited tourist arrivals after the first Covid-19 case was detected there in March 2020 and has registered just 10 cases since then.

The island had intended to reopen to tourists on Feb. 1, but the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in Chile altered those plans indefinitely.

Edmunds Paoa’s office has said a resumption of tourism depends on 80 percent of Easter Island’s residents having received an initial two-dose Covid-19 vaccine series (a milestone achieved recently) and on the epidemiological situation on Chile’s mainland.

With a currently daily average of 35,000 new cases and a test positivity rate of more than 20 percent, Chile is experiencing a surge of the Omicron variant. Pressure on hospitals, however, has been low due to the mildness of the symptoms and that country’s high vaccination rates.

“We want to open, but the situation in Santiago doesn’t let us. It’s like opening a floodgate and having all the water rush on top of you. That’s what Omicron is,” the mayor said, adding that Easter Island has negligible healthcare capacity.

Over the past two years, the only planes flying in and out of the island have been a once-weekly cargo aircraft that brings in supplies and transports local residents to and from the mainland for urgent matters.

This week, the Federation of Tourism Companies of Chile (Fedetur) urged the government to take swift action to address the severe plight of the Pacific territory.

Measures to mitigate the crisis are now insufficient, Fedetur Vice President Helen Kouyoumdjian said. “No economic activity can withstand almost two years of shutdown.”

The lack of tourists also means that the Tapati festival, which takes place annually in early February and is the biggest celebration on Easter Island and throughout Polynesia, is a purely local event for the second straight year.

Unlike prior to the pandemic, when the festival lasted two weeks and its traditional music and dancing, canoe races in the ocean and races down the slope of Cerro Pu’i hill on plantain trunks fashioned into sleds drew thousands of tourists, this year’s Tapati will only run for one week and most activities will conclude prior to sundown.

“We’d never been closed for so long. Our ancestors endured similar situations but for a shorter period of time, especially when there were outbreaks of leprosy and they learned to be self-sustaining,” Akahanga Rapu, one of the event’s organizers, told Efe.

Even so, a portion of the community is happy that the Tapati has become a more intimate gathering, Marlene Alejandra Saez, a teacher on Easter Island, told Efe, adding that in recent years tourists had arrived in large numbers and marginalized local families, “the center of Rapa Nui culture.”

“We’re going to try to enjoy these days and raise the community’s dejected spirits,” Rapu said. EFE


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