Easter Island is the only island in this part of the Pacific; it has regularly scheduled flights, a large choice of hotels and residenciales and a thriving souvenir trade. In addition to tourists from Tahiti and mainland Chile, it attracts visitors from all over the world. Many arrive for the annual Tapati Festival, held around the first part of February. This is a busy time on the island, when cruise ships stop at the island, adding to the holiday throngs. While they only stay one day, their impact is huge. They may carry 1000 passengers, plus crew. All must be off-loaded by small tenders as there is no deep water port. They are then bused around the island to see the main sites. This puts enormous stress on the island’s fragile archaeological sites and it is the least beneficial type of tourism for cruise passengers are not on island long enough to spend money, nor do they eat or sleep on the island. They make a significant impact, get back on ship, and leave. Another superficial type of tourism involves very expensive private jet charters. They fly in, spend one night at a hotel (often a Chilean-owned hotel), see a few sites, and leave the next day.
Along with huge increases in tourist numbers, the population on Rapa Nui continues to grow with the immigration of Chileans from the mainland. The total daily population of tourists and locals combined is expected to reach 10,000 this year. Island waste management and water sanitation systems are not designed for these numbers of people and there is no infrastructure to support the increases in visitors and residents. Unchecked development to accommodate the increased numbers of tourists is unsustainable. The isolation of Rapa Nui and their dependency on imported items limits Rapa Nui’s options for dealing with increased pressure on their already over-taxed resources. One of our partners, International Help Fund Australia, is actively working to alleviate some of these pressures on Easter Island by promoting recycling and composting programs, water sanitation projects and installing composting toilets at the most heavily-visited sites.
You can help by being a responsible visitor and respecting the people, environment and archaeological resources of the island. Bring re-useable bags with you when you travel; if you have any plastic waste, take it back with you and recycle it at home. If you like to walk, many of the archaeological sites can be reached on foot (Ana Kai Tangata, Tahai and the Museo, and even Orongo if you are adventurous!) instead of by car. Use proper site etiquette—respect the fragile antiquities of the island by staying on designated paths and looking with your eyes.
Some writers compare Easter Island’s history to our world of today: a microcosmic example of what can happened if we continue to despoil our natural resources and overpopulate the planet. This is a powerful analogy for those who value the irreplaceable treasures of our world. And now, small islands face global warming and rising sea levels.
Tourism that is environmentally and culturally aware is a must, for the damage that can be done by hordes of tourists is incalculable. When you plan to visit Rapa Nui, allow sufficient time to savor this special place. Meet the islanders, watch the sunsets, reflect upon the incredible archaeological sites. Swim in the turquoise waters at Ovahe. Get in touch with the universe and yourself.
(Images on this page courtesy of Brigid Mulloy)