1658196257 Easter Island is preparing to unveil its mysterious heritage again

Easter Island is preparing to unveil its mysterious heritage again after two years of isolation

Tongariki, one of the tourist attractions of Easter Island.Tongariki, one of the tourist attractions of Easter Island.MF

There are problems in Rapanui Paradise. The long-awaited reopening of Easter Island (Chile), scheduled for August 4 after nearly two and a half years of closure due to the pandemic, has plagued local authorities with “uncertainty” and “concern”. Of the 7,700 inhabitants, more than 2,000 left the mythical and paradisiacal territory since tourism, the main livelihood of 71% of the population, was abandoned. Along with the lack of a trained workforce, Mayor Pedro Edmunds claims they don’t have the resources to repair and clean the national park, home to its mysterious guardians, the “Moais.” Edmunds criticizes Gabriel Boric’s government’s response to the complex scenario, claiming that “they say they’re doing things but they don’t see it”. The reopening of the tiny triangular island will be gradual. Two commercial flights per week will be restored for the first two months — each carrying 300 people — a third of pre-pandemic passengers. The hotel capacity of 45% according to the tourism association more than withstands the initial influx. There are nearly 2,500 beds in venues ranging from cabins to luxury hotels on the island, which a recent Time magazine publication named as one of the “50 Great Places” to Visit This Year and Theirs “Resilient Culture” highlights how they have managed to survive during the pandemic.

Only 11 of the 24 tourist spots will open, including Anakena, the white sandy beach and the lapis lazuli sea; the Rano Raraku quarry, the cradle of the island’s history; and Ahu Akivi, the iconic site where seven moais carved from volcanic tuff stand. “We cannot keep all locations open as we would have to hire a lot of people and go out of business. When the tourist pays for the tickets, they are reinvested in human resources,” explains Uko Tongariki Tuk, head of the island’s tourism department. However, it makes it clear that Rapa Nui will meet travelers’ expectations.

The lagoon in Rano Raraku crater on Easter Island. The lagoon in Rano Raraku crater on Easter Island. Ripani Massimo

After the main source of foreign exchange was shut down, unemployment in the region reached 58%. “People look at you and stop talking to you. You are mute. It is painful to live in an idyllic place and with sluggish people,” laments the mayor, who has held the office for five legislative periods since 1994. Before the pandemic, Easter Island was seeing 156,000 visitors a year, which translates to $120 million for its economy.

To combat unemployment, the municipality launched the Pro Employment program, which has given work to more than 800 people. Tongariki Tuk describes them as tour guides, cooks or bus drivers who now part-time clean the coast, plant fruit plantations or carry out cultural activities. The Commerce Department last week announced a $700,000 fund to reactivate small businesses (SMEs), particularly in tourism, culture and female entrepreneurship.

“The economy is broke, in debt up to the knees with the banks, they don’t have to start over. But that’s exactly what it is. I am impressed by the Department of Social Development, which reports to the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (Conadi). Because it’s 100% indigenous territory, Conadi can help, but there they are, silent,” says Edmunds.

The aforementioned ministry claims in an email that since mid-April it has had “direct communication with the authorities” of the island and that on the 29th of the same month it announced the current agreements with Conadi and “the availability to increase these amounts and promote “ reviewed new projects” as one of the actions proposed by the municipality. “To date, the ministry continues to await the response from local authorities,” it said.

the big brake

One of the big brakes on the island’s reopening has been the weak healthcare system of the territory, which is part of Chile’s Valparaíso region and is 3,600 kilometers away. There is only one 18-bed hospital on Easter Island, and only four of them have ventilators. In the case of a critically ill patient, at least 15 hours elapse from the time of notification before an air ambulance can drop them off at a hospital on the mainland. In times of a pandemic, the risk was too high, especially when the population was not yet 80% vaccinated.

In late March, the community sent a document to the government asking for $2.5 million a month to strengthen the health system and another $4 million to reactivate the 7,000-hectare Rapa Nui -Parks demanded. Regarding the latter, the situation has “not changed a millimeter” since the new government took office. “There is no money to hire people,” warns the mayor. As for the healthcare system, Edmunds held a “flash meeting” with the Secretary of State for Health and various experts last Sunday, where “they discussed the decision to invest in the emergency department of the hospital, which needs to happen.” Yes he says the mayor.

“It wasn’t until the end of June that they started taking the minute seriously. It makes our stomachs clench and makes us more afraid of opening up,” admits the mayor, who assures that he has no new meetings with the government on his agenda.

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