Easter Island Flights Resume after Protest

SANTIAGO ~ A protest by Easter Island locals against excessive hordes of tourists and residence-seekers eased this week when officials negotiated the reopening of the Pacific Island’s only airport after two days of disturbances.

“The airport is fully operational,” a senior interior ministry official, Patricio Rosende, told reporters in the Chilean capital Santiago on Monday.

All flights to and from Easter Island, which belongs to Chile, were suspended on Sunday and early Monday when around 20 locals forced their way into the airport. More than 600 passengers were affected, according to the LAN Chile airline.

The protesters were demanding restrictions on the 50,000 visitors who go to the island each year to see its famed stone statues, and a special council to stop mainland Chileans and foreigners settling there.

Rosende said he would travel to Easter Island in the next few days to hear complaints from the indigenous Polynesians who make up the majority of the 4,000-strong population that their culture was being diluted by immigration.

The protesters also claimed tourists and new residents were importing trash and crime, and that the sustainability of Easter Island – listed as a UNESCO world heritage site – was at risk.

Luz Zasso Paoa, the mayor of Easter Island’s sole town of Hanga Roa, told Chilean radio that restricting immigration could be based on the same model as for Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

There, the number of tourists, workers and residents is controlled to prevent overpopulation and environmental damage.

Australia has a similar policy for its Norfolk Island.

Zasso Paoa said Easter Island had been demanding entry controls for over a decade and that the economic benefits of tourism – the main revenue earner – had to be balanced against the dangers of over-population.

“We depend on the island for our livelihood, but we also have to manage our water resources, energy and trash collection.”

A history professor at Santiago’s Catholic University who specialized in indigenous communities, Luis Carlos Parentini, said he believed the crux of the problem was not so much European or North American tourists but rather “ignorant” Chileans.

“The foreigners are more polite. But many Chileans, for example, don’t greet the islanders in the street,” he said.

“Twenty years ago, they (the islanders) were on the brink of collapse, losing their identity. After a valorisation of aboriginal populations, they now feel proud of their culture.

“They live off tourism, but now feel they have enough to get by and believe they are being swamped” by new arrivals, he explained.

Easter Island – known as Rapa Nui to its indigenous community – is one of the most remote outcrops in the Pacific. It is located 3,500 kilometres west of Chile, nearly halfway to Tahiti.

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