Easter Island is known for its unique Moai monumental statues carved by the Rapa Nui people, believed to have arrived on the remote landmass in the southeastern Pacific Ocean in about the 12th century.
Despite its isolated location about 3,500km from the coast of Chile, the island is a popular tourist destination, not least due to its remarkable collection of about 900 tall human figures with distinctive features and standing up to 10m tall.
However, it is those very tourists, alongside mainland migrants, who have become a threat to the island’s well-being and Chile, which annexed the territory in 1888, has decided to act.
In 2007, Easter Island was designated a special territory and in March, congress voted to limit the number of tourists and foreign or mainland residents allowed on the island, and the time they are allowed to stay.
New rules are to come into effect tomorrow that reduce the time that tourists — including Chileans not part of the Rapa Nui people and foreigners — can stay on the island from 90 to 30 days.
“Foreigners are already taking over the island,” Easter Island Commune Mayor Pedro Edmunds told reporters.
At the last census last year, there were 7,750 people living on Easter Island, almost double the population of a few decades ago, before the island was hit by a tourism boom and the real-estate development that accompanied it.
Edmunds said that number is 3,000 “too many.”
“They’re damaging the local idiosyncrasy… the thousand-year culture is changing and not for the good,” he said, adding that “customs from the continent” are infiltrating the island and “that’s not positive.”
Crime and domestic violence figures are also rising.
However, it is not just obnoxious people from the mainland causing problems: The increase in tourism is harming the environment.
All basic services are straining under the pressure, not least waste management, Easter Island Commune Environmental Adviser Ana Maria Gutierrez said.
A decade ago the island generated 1.4 tonnes of waste per year per inhabitant, but that figure has almost doubled to 2.5 tonnes today, with a population that recycles very little.
“Environmentally the island is very fragile,” Gutierrez said.
The new laws, however, impose stricter rules on those who wish to live on the island, amongst them a requirement to be related to someone from the Rapa Nui people: either a parent, partner or child.
Others who will be allowed to stay are public servants, employees of organizations that provide services to the government and those who develop an independent economic activity alongside their families.
On arrival, tourists must present their hotel reservation or an invitation from a resident. The rules will also establish a yet-to-be-decided maximum capacity.
Yet Edmunds is not happy, as he feels that the rules do not go far enough to protect the island’s culture, heritage and singularity.
“I don’t agree with these rules, it’s not enough because it doesn’t reflect all the aspirations of the island,” he said, adding that like “many other Rapa Nui” he favors a “total” ban on the arrival of new residents.
However, the legislation is at least “a good start,” he said.
Rapa Nui are a Polynesian people closely related to those on Tahiti, whereas the majority of Chileans have European ancestry, with a minority of indigenous peoples.
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