Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Chile still a safe destination for tourists?

Courtesy of Les Jones, we learn of the very unpleasant experiences of a group of American visitors in southern Chile.

I and thousands of others were held hostage. I know that's a word imbued with a lot of power and emotion, so I don't use it lightly. The organization behind the strike that triggered the whole chain of events I'm about to cover was careful enough not to use the word "hostage" in their public statements, but they did have a publicly stated goal of "shutting down tourism" and "using the tourists as a negotiating chip." So I ask what word would you use for the situation where travelers in a region have their freedom to move highly restricted by a group whose stated goal was to shut down tourism?

. . .

A few clear questions come to my mind:

  • Why wasn't this an International news story? I fed all the information and photos to the New York Times from the very beginning, and they didn't write one word about 3000 stranded tourists, 3 Chilean ministers resigning, 2 deaths, a Chilean Air Force airlift operation, or any of the other details that happened. Not a word. CNN? Anderson Cooper doesn't seem to be interested in the story (I got a form letter reply). The only International news agency that even began to cover the story was the BBC. They got it late (1/15), they got it wrong (several completely inaccurate bits that seem to have come from government or official sources, who appeared to be trying to downplay the situation), and they had no on-the-ground reports. If you really think that you're getting "news" from your news outlets, think again.
  • Why didn't the embassies issue a travel advisory? Apparently, a couple did. I'm still trying to track them down [I've since found the German warning and the Dutch warning]. But the US embassy did not post on their site despite knowing that not only were there stranded US tourists, but more US tourists coming. [I've since found that the US Embassy posted a warning on a local tourist site!, but not on their own, which is where we're supposed to look. Perhaps if the news media actually thought this was a real story they'd think to ask someone about that. {Update: As it turns out, the warning on the local tourist site was copied off the US Embassy site. I wasn't aware of the process on these things, and it's a good thing to know in the future (though it wouldn't have helped us): apparently warnings are first posted as Warden's Message, which you find by clicking on the Citizen Services tab. They don't make it to email warnings or to the main advisory pages until they've been approved by Washington. This means that before you enter a country, you really need to check out the Warden's Messages, as they might contain useful information that is not yet completely official. Didn't know that. Thanks Thomas for pointing it out.}]
  • What does this mean for tourism in Chile? I'll have more to say about that in a bit, but according to local sources in Punta Arenas, they already believe that the strike had a US$4 million impact on tourism in the past two weeks, a main source of income for the locals. A large number of the trapped tourists were Northern Chileans, too, so even within their own country there's going to be a backlash, I think. But if the area is poor and you shut down one of the main sources of income, just how much poorer do you think the area will get? As it turns out, just the amount extra I paid on this trip would have heated over 500 homes for a month under the 15.8% increase.
  • Will this repeat? Short answer: yes. The citizens of Magallanes discovered that by shutting down the park they can get the government to back down. So the whole thing simply waits for the next thing that the majority of citizens dislike before we get a repeat of the park shutdown.

So now we get to the political part. After 9/11, American photographers and outdoor enthusiasts looked for "safe" and "reliable" locations to visit in the world. The Middle East, parts of Africa, parts of SE Asia, and others started to seem unsafe. South America looked safe and stable. I'm here to report that Chile is no longer on that list. Given that a large contingent of Chileans who are dependent on tourism just pissed off thousands of tourists and cost them tons of money, who's going to recommend you go to Southern Chile any more? Not me.

. . .

Obviously, I didn't like being a hostage. I'm not going the same folk have another shot at me. I suggest you stay away, too. Torres del Paine may be beautiful, but in visiting it you'd be rewarding people who don't much care about you as a tourist. They just want your money. Or your body to use in negotiations with their government. Simply put: Boycott Southern Chile.

. . .

I have a special warning that's much more specific. During the whole time we and other stranded tourists were trying to get out of Chile, we kept meeting people coming in. For example, all of my group met people at the ticket counters in Santiago where LAN Airlines was not warning people who were trying to get boarding tickets to Punta Arenas that they would be flying into an airport that had no food or shelter and where they would be stranded! ... So, given that observed behavior, I'd also have to say: Boycott LAN. Don't use them if you do go there (the alternative is Sky Airlines). And, of course, since LAN is the primary carrier into the region, that just makes my Boycott Southern Chile statement even stronger, I think.

If you're planning a trip to Patagonia that includes Paine, start thinking some more. Think about what happened to 3000 or more tourists in the first two weeks of 2011. It will happen again, almost certainly. If you still want to go, make contingency plans. Southern Chile is no longer a reliable destination.

There's much more at the link, including photographs.

What makes me angry is the almost complete absence of coverage about this in the mainstream news media - and the deafening silence from the US State Department. Why wasn't a travel advisory issued?

If you're thinking about traveling to Chile anytime soon, you might want to keep this incident in mind. I certainly shall. Thanks to Mr. Hogan for alerting us to what's going on down there.



Anonymous said...

So, you post on your blog a problem occurring in southern Chile. You ask why the State Department didn't issue a travel advisory, a very good question. However, as far as I can tell you asked it rhetorically, not for real. Why didn't you contact the State Department and ask the question? Anything less is just bitching and moaning.


Anon Y. Mous said...

We had planned to vacation there next month. Then the TSA ramped up their groping and fondling exercise, so we decided not to. I guess this is just gravy on the grits. No reason to go be a pawn in another shakedown.

I used to like to fly. I'm not up for someone who can't maintain a job at McDonalds feeling around my privates with soiled gloves. Neither does being becalmed in a South American airepuerto float my raft.

Not my idea of travel perks.

Noons said...

What happened to those folks should have been reported by the media.

Terrorism is not only by "WMDs" and blow-up towel-heads, the media should know that by now.

Unfortunately, news coverage continues to be a fabricated exercise...

I even heard someone claim this sort of thing happens all the time in Paris, France, and therefore Hogan was just whining.

In case no one noticed, Torres del Paine is not as accessible or cosmopolitan as Paris! It's not like one call walk to the next tube station...