The first trip to Easter Island after the pandemic: “We were bad, tourism blinded us”

The first trip to Easter Island after the pandemic: “We were bad, tourism blinded us”

When the first airliner landed on Chile’s Easter Island on Aug. 4 after 872 days of closure due to the pandemic, passengers crowded the windows to photograph it as if they’d encountered a species in the middle of a safari. In many ways it was. Adding to the uniqueness of being one of the most isolated inhabited corners of the planet and its enigmatic sculptures carved in volcanic rock, cases of Covid within the territory have been counted on the fingers of one hand for two and a half years. Forced to cut off its mainstay of tourism, its residents have become completely isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was a bubble of 7,000 people that burst on Thursday. And on that island of old traditions, also called Rapa Nui (the navel of the earth), the first visitors noticed that something had changed.

Uko Tongariki Tuki sits on the deck of a limp wooden boat rocking and watches the sunrise with the Rano Raraku quarry at his back. “The sea is our terrace. Where you see water, we see roads, our main source of food,” says the head of the tourism department. With the closure of the island, tourists disappeared and with them the source of income for three quarters of the population. The land was practically uncultivated and there was a serious shortage of produce. “Tourism blinded us. People said: “Tourism makes money and with the money you buy eggs. What am I supposed to keep chickens for?” explains Julio Hotus, 60, General Secretary of the Council of Elders.

Uko Tongariki Tuki, Director of Tourism for Easter Island (Chile).Uko Tongariki Tuki, Director of Tourism for Easter Island (Chile). Sofia Yanjari

People then went to the sea to eat. A deep blue sea that you can see well from 30 meters away. Divers say the rest of the world appears black and white once you dive into Easter Island’s waters. Planting also began. Today, thanks to the help of the municipality, there are 1,200 city gardens. “We reconnected. Go to family events. Cook curanto (preparation with a spiritual dimension), fish, dive, walk around the island. We returned to places occupied by tourists,” describes Uko.

Tour guide Luis Reyes, 48, assures that tourism was out of control before the pandemic. “We lacked the days of the week to serve the people. In the last year before the closure, I only freed 18 out of 365 days,” he recalls. But that doesn’t mean, says another guide, that his hair stood on end with emotion when he saw the first plane land.

One of the sustainable orchards planted by the island's residents after tourism closed due to the pandemic.One of the sustainable orchards planted by the island’s residents after tourism closed due to the pandemic. Sofia Yanjari

Two weekly flights

For this month of August, Latam airline has resumed the route with two weekly flights. The idea is to gradually add more. Before the pandemic it was 10. To that we had to add charter flights and cruise lines. Covering an area of ​​164 square kilometers, Easter Island received 156,000 visitors annually, generating $120 million for its economy.

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“We were wrong, we went in the wrong direction and we realized that in the pandemic,” says Mayor Pedro Edmunds, a figure so respected they would already erect his own statue if possible. “We came to the conclusion that tourism blinded us. We were a bit hypocritical when we shared what the island was like without actually experiencing it,” he adds, in front of the seven standing moais of Ahu Nau Nau on paradise Anakena Beach, one of the 13 tourist attractions open to visitors . out of a total of 24. Fully reopening the world’s largest open-air museum will require resources the island does not have. Edmunds is in talks with the government to act as a guarantor and obtain a loan from international banks.

Residents of Easter Island are waiting at the airport for the arrival of new tourists.Residents of Easter Island are waiting for the arrival of new tourists at Sofia Yanjari Airport

Tourism is a springboard for new generations. This solid source of income has enabled many young people to study at mainland universities and travel. “To achieve a balance, we are working with the various players in the industry. In these meetings we ask ourselves whether 14 flights a week is necessary or whether it is responsible to open a new hotel,” describes Uko. The mayor makes it clear that the new stage must be geared towards sustainability. The optimization of water and energy, but also of human resources.

During the pandemic, about 2,000 residents left the island, most of them Conti, as islanders call mainland Chileans. “We used to look abroad for solutions to our problems, now we want to educate and specialize our people,” adds Edmunds.

The “tourist” identity

For Hotus, a Rapa Nui council member, the island is divided into two types of people: those from a more popular neighborhood who are more deeply rooted in traditions, and those who are more in touch with outsiders and the tourism business community. “Tourism is such a big part of the identity of the Rapanui people. Tourism tells us how we should function. We’re not a tourist offer, we’re an answer,” he says over a fresh tuna lunch at the seaside Topa Ra’a restaurant, whose waiters are eager to serve visitors again.

The psychologist Domingo Izquierdo lists the problems that people on Easter Island have to contend with, such as violence, alcohol or drug consumption, “have a lot to do with an identity crisis, a loss of roots”. “These are consequences of a process that ended up building a tourist identity beyond the essence of the ancestors,” says Izquierdo, who, as part of a municipal program, takes care of patients in a house open to the people, where therapies Can be developed under an avocado or with your feet in the sand.

Julio Hotus, Secretary General of the Easter Island Council of Elders.Julio Hotus, Secretary General of the Council of Elders of Easter Island Sofia Yanjari

Hotus, who taught traditional classes for years, is approached by parents asking him to teach their children about culture. “I answer that they have it in the house, in the history of their ancestors. They just want them to play guitar and dance. All art tourism is linked to culture, but it is much more than that.”

One of the great battle flags of the Council of Elders, which guards the rights of the Rapanui people vis-à-vis the Chilean state, is the preservation of their language of Polynesian origin. Fewer and fewer young people learn it. In their own home, they prefer Spanish or English because it is more “useful” for them. According to UNESCO, only 10% of under-18s speak Rapanui. “That was an impertinence from the dominant culture, namely the Chileans, and our problem was that we believed in it,” says the city councilor.

Polynesian dances are one of the most sought-after tourist attractions. The energetic traditional dances are capable of reviving the spirit of the most weary traveler at the end of the day. Men and women, with their painted and feathered bodies, move to such a rhythm that it seems as if they have drums on their hips and ukuleles on their knees and wrists.

Maima Rapu, teacher at the Kari Kari Cultural Dance Academy on Easter Island.Maima Rapu, teacher at the Kari Kari Cultural Dance Academy on Easter Island Sofia Yanjari

Maima Rapu, 42, is a teacher at Kari Kari Cultural Ballet, the island’s oldest and the only academy that has continued to teach during the pandemic. “Dance and percussion are a way for us to get young people interested in their language, which we also teach them, because you can’t really dance if you don’t understand what’s being sung,” he explains.

On Friday, the Kari Kari Ballet was finally able to perform in front of an audience again. Among the spectators were some of the 258 people who arrived on the first commercial flight with a capacity of 300, according to Latam. Among the passengers were relatives of the islanders, parents who hadn’t seen their children for more than a year, and foreigners who had tickets since 2020. All were greeted with cheers and applause from a group approaching Mataveri Airport and cheerful flowers delivered quietly by the reception team.

The Rapanui, eager to see new faces and revitalize their economy after one of the world’s longest quarantines, have reopened their doors to change their relationship with tourism. And those who know this 100% indigenous territory well, assures that nothing can be done against the intention of the island.

The Moai of Tongariki, on August 5th after the reopening of the island. The Moai of Tongariki, on August 5th after the reopening of the island. sophia yanjari

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