Post-quake Chile’s tourism industry hit hard by false impressions; most sites are fine

By Brad Haynes, AP
Monday, April 5, 2010

Quake scares Chile tourists, most sites fine

SANTIAGO, Chile — Outside Santiago’s Fine Arts Museum is a fallen cornice broken into chunks and strewn across marble steps. But inside, sculpture stands firmly beneath a perfectly intact glass cupola.

In the aftermath of the devastating mega-quake in central Chile, visitors are greeted by jarring contrasts: A general impression of normalcy shaken by pockets of spectacular destruction. One thing is certain. The country’s $2 billion tourism industry has taken a beating since Feb. 27.

Chile has lifted the state of catastrophe that outgoing President Michelle Bachelet declared when she sent soldiers into the streets to stop looting and deliver relief. A U.S. State Department warning strongly urging U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and nonessential travel to Chile was narrowed March 12 to areas closest to the epicenter.

Still, travelers canceled half their reservations at Chile’s hotels in the first weeks of March. Despite Easter vacations, 30 percent of reservations have been canceled for April. That’s bad news for a nation in desperate need of reconstruction dollars, but it may mean opportunity for deal-hunting travelers.

The first startling sight for most visitors is Santiago’s banged-up international airport, where the ceiling and walkways were severely damaged. Jumbo jets now empty passengers onto the tarmac, where they collect baggage off the ground and file through customs in a tent.

“It’s a bad first impression,” said Sebastian Catalan, who runs bike tours of Santiago. “It says, ‘Welcome. Chile is a disaster.’”

After the unusual arrival, though, the most surprising thing for tourists may be how undamaged Chile appears.

Given the country’s slender geography, only the central regions were widely damaged, particularly coastal cities wiped out by the tsunami. Famous destinations in the northern Atacama Desert and southern Patagonia were entirely untouched.

And thanks to advanced building codes, structures in the capital of Santiago largely escaped the destruction.

There has been some impact on a few attractions: contemporary art exhibits inside the Fine Arts building are closed and the 160-year-old Municipal Theater won’t be hosting concerts and performances for months. Chile’s grand national library remains closed to the public while engineers examine structural damage and aging Catholic churches throughout the city need rebuilding.

Southern-bound train routes remain suspended, but travel has resumed along the country’s main north-south highway. Even some wineries and national parks in the central southern heartland are slowly reopening.

But some landmarks have been transfigured. The first visitors to the Siete Tazas National Park will discover that the namesake string of seven impressive waterfalls dried up overnight when the earthquake opened underground cracks and diverted the falls’ source. Park guards are watching anxiously as water trickles again through the cavernous stone cups, hoping the subterranean fissures will fill with silt and restore the roaring cascades.

A similar process saved the fortunes of Roberto Movillo, who owns the nearby Panimavida Hot Springs. After the quake, Movillo saw the water level in his natural wells drop precipitously, but within days they had filled to the point of overflowing.

“Now the problem is the tourists,” he said. “That’s where the flow has really dropped off.”

Life, of course, remains precarious for the many Chileans left homeless and jobless by the disaster.

Coastal villages that suffered the worst of the tsunami were nearly wiped out. Towns throughout the southern heartland remain in ruins, with entire blocks condemned and streets still obstructed by piles of rubble.

Priorities have shifted accordingly for some in the tourism industry.

The Chile Trekking Foundation ordinarily works to protect the environment and train hundreds of small tourism entrepreneurs. But in the past month, they’ve sent a third of their annual budget to emergency relief in the quake region, offering the first assistance to many rural communities near the epicenter.

Franz Schubert, a foundation co-director and hostel owner, doesn’t see the desperation of his neighbors as a reason to put tourism on hold.

“What am I going to do — close my doors when people need jobs?” he said. “Besides, tourists come here for trekking in the mountains. And those haven’t moved.”

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