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Easter Island Statues Under Threat

By Sue Richards last modified Jun 25, 2008 11:22 AM

Published: 2008-06-25 11:22:36
Countries: Easter Island

As reported on

Record tourism is already causing problems on Easter Island with tourism up 20% since 2006 and a total of 52,000 tourists visited in 2007.

Not only are sun, surf, winds and humidity eating away at the Moais (giant volcanic rock statues), but some tourists walk or climb on them, exacerbating natural deterioration.

Easter Island is a belly button experiencing a tourist boom, and some are worried the onslaught of outsiders could take a toll on the very things they come to see. "More tourism, more deterioration. More visitors, more loss," said Susana Nahoe, an archaeologist who was a liaison between Chile's National Tourism Service and the island's scientific community before leaving the post two years ago, citing "differences in values."

"We are at the point now where, either we protect what we have or we lose it," she said.

Moais (pronounced Moe-Eyes) already face a host of natural enemies. Sun, surf, winds and humidity are eating at their features. Many have been beset by blights, lichen and moss. Erosion tears away the Ahus, ceremonial platforms of dirt and stone on which they sit, and even is slowly claiming the island's porous edges.

Nahoe said most tourists are careful not to harm Moais, but some unknowingly walk or climb on them, exacerbating natural deterioration. Others deface them deliberately, including a Finnish tourist who was fined $17,000 after hacking an ear lobe off a statue in March 2008.

What can be done to better-protect Moais is difficult to answer. But then, so much about this place raises beguiling questions. Why were the heads built? How were they lugged all over the island? What happened to their eyes? And what catastrophe befell civilization, causing people to suddenly stop making the Moai and topple the ones they'd completed?

Settlers arrived from the Marquesas Islands to the north between 400 and 600. Society flourished until about 1680 and Moais probably were constructed to honor tribal leaders. But resources became scarce as the population grew. When islanders cut down all the trees, tribal warfare erupted, leading to cannibalism and the pulling down of the Moai.

In 1967, Chile's Lan Airlines began using it as a refuelling stop en route to Tahiti. Tourists began arriving en masse 20 years later, when a 2-mile runway was built as an alternate landing site for the U.S. space shuttle.

Today, in addition to a few cruise ships (and the odd cruising yachtsman), there are eight flights a week from Santiago, Chile's capital, and Papeete, Tahiti. During low season, late March through July, the number of weekly flights drops to four, but packed planes have brought record numbers of tourists.

"Every flight is full," said Pedro Edmunds, mayor of the only town, Hanga Roa. "It's been brutal. But in a good way."

Easter Island has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, but officials attribute the recent spike to last year's New Seven Wonders of the World contest. The island didn't win, finishing eighth, but Edmunds said officials expect 2008 tourism totals to match 2007, spurred by positive word-of-mouth from visitors. Also helping is the new Explora, the island's first all-inclusive, eco-friendly resort. Long-time favourite the Hanga Roa Hotel is undergoing a major expansion too.

The island has 1,524 archaeological sites, including the 887 Moais, of which only about 50 have been restored. Repairing and placing Moais upright can cause them to deteriorate faster since they are more exposed than statues that remain face down or buried.

Edmunds said 54 types of blights feast on Moais and that "there's really nothing being done" to protect them. Nahoe said a 2003 experiment by UNESCO and experts from Japan injected five Moai with a sealant that helped protect against humidity and lichen. The results were positive, but the treatment proved too costly for widespread use.

Both complained that problems with preservation are exacerbated by the fact the island must report to Chile.

"There's no understanding of the clamor of the Rapa Nui people to control what's theirs," said Edmunds, referring to the island by its official native name, Rapa Nui. "They don't leave us room to be creative ... Everything is in Santiago, where so many have never even visited the island."