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Sustainable Tourism on Easter Island

Like a tiny vessel drifting in the immense Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is an extremely vulnerable place to live in. Any disturbance in the island’s ecology or social makeup may have drastic consequences for the islanders’ well-being. With the advent of tourism, thousands of travellers flock here to see the enigmatic moai, potentially exacerbating the problems that the Rapa Nui people already face owing to the scarcity of land and resources. As visitors, we should be conscious of our impact and make sure that our visit will leave a positive impact on the island.

Land: The Biggest Problem Facing the Rapa Nui

If you look at a map of the Pacific, Easter Island is barely a speck in the endless blue. Land is scarce, and so its distribution has to be handled with great care to avoid social tensions. The Rapa Nui have devised and followed for centuries a system of inheritance by which families are assigned a strip of land, which is then passed down from one generation to the next. The annexation of the island in 1888 by the Chilean government disrupted this practice. The state expropriated the land and the natives were reduced to the status of being mere tenants. In the 20th century, there were attempts to restore land rights to the natives, such as a decree in 1979 granting title deeds to the Rapa Nui. To this day, the islanders own only 13% of the island, whereas the Chilean state owns 70%. The latter includes the Rapa Nui National Park, where important archaeological sites are located and protected by law.

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Easter Island - a boat floating in the endless ocean

Tourism: Curse or Blessing?

Land is crucial to the livelihood of the Rapa Nui. Without any significant industry other than tourism, many islanders still depend on the cultivation of their land to support themselves economically. Some, taking advantage of the tourism boom, have turned to earning a living from running guesthouses on their own territory. For those who haven’t had their ancestral lands restituted, there’s not much choice but to work in the big resorts, which have proliferated in recent years. Cost of living on the island, however, is notoriously high, and there is competition for jobs from mainland Chileans who arrive in increasing numbers. Uncontrolled growth brought about by tourism is squeezing out the natives in terms of both space and affordability. As a result, life is difficult for a sizable portion of the native population who have lost their lands.

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The mysterious moai attract thousands of tourists every year

Trouble in Paradise

Despite laws being implemented to remedy the situation, such as the prohibition of all non-Rapa Nui ownership of land on the island and the release of state-owned territory to islanders, many land disputes are ongoing. The most recent demonstrations in March 2015 led to the shutdown of the island’s main attractions, as protesters blocked access to the sites.

In 2010, the islanders’ grievances gained international attention when protesters occupying public and private property were forcibly removed by the Chilean police. These protesters claimed ownership of the land on which government facilities or luxury resorts had been built. A new initiative announced in early 2014 promises to transfer 1,051 hectares of state-owned land to the locals. If successful, it will be a big step in the right direction.

Some also thought that the revenue from tourism was not staying on the island and was instead channeled back to the mainland. Another concern arising from the huge influx of tourists is the increase in sewage and rubbish, which are hard to dispose of on such a small island and can cause grave damages to water sources if the issue is not addressed.

What can you do?

Visitors to Easter Island have the responsibility to be aware of the possible adverse effects which tourism may cause and to minimize them as far as possible. Here we suggest several measures to make sure that you will be contributing to the island’s social and environmental health with your stay:

  • Show sensitivity to the Rapa Nui’s distinctive culture and sense of identity. Refer to them as “Rapa Nui” and avoid using the name “Easter Islanders”. Learn more about their customs and current concerns.
  • Make sure that the economic benefit stays on the island by preferring small, locally owned and run hostels or guesthouses over big luxury resorts. Consider buying artisanal products from local craftsmen.
  • Be conscious of the environmental impact which your visit may incur. Think twice before throwing away something while on the island. When out exploring the island, be careful not to damage the flora and fauna, as well as the archeological remains.

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The moai will be grateful for your efforts of safeguarding the island's future.

Do you have other suggestions on how to practise sustainable tourism in the fragile paradise that is Easter Island? Tell us by leaving a comment below!