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When I first arrived at Torres del Paine National Park in 2012, its massive granite towers hid behind dark clouds. I had traveled to the southern tip of Chile, where the fjords meet the Andes, to spend 9 days hiking the 85-mile O trail with my brother. Patagonia’s sprawling glaciers and mythical wilderness had made Torres del Paine a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and one of Latin America’s most famous hiking destinations. We had dreamed about this adventure for a long time.
But if we were expecting primordial stillness at the end of the world, we would be disappointed. While we waited with a crowd of hikers to receive our permit to enter the park, I thought that we would be alone once we got inside. Yet, as soon as we got on the first stretch of the hike, we started counting the people who crossed our path: every few minutes we politely nodded to strangers, who, like us, had been drawn there by Bruce Chatwin’s tales or Robert Fitzroy’s adventures. Helicopters zipped in the sky above our heads, taking more newcomers to a nearby high-end resort.
The park’s popularity and subsequent foot traffic has grown exponentially, in part thanks to cheaper flights that have made international travel more accessible in the past two decades. Tourism has had a welcome economic impact on the region, but it has also disrupted the environment. In 2005 and 2011, trekkers burned toilet paper (despite fires being prohibited), resulting in two wildfires that burned 74,000 acres of the reserve and killed countless pumas, guanacos and huemul deer.
National parks around the world count on tourism revenue to support their conservation efforts, and Torres del Paine gets more than most. Since its creation in 1959, the park has received a year-round flow of people. In 2019 alone, about 304,000 tourists visited the park–more than 14 times the number of residents who live in the surrounding Ultima Esperanza province.
Then the pandemic hit, and in March of 2020, after 61 consecutive years of service, the park closed for eight months. Silence filled the reserve, only broken by the roar of violent gusts of wind. The wilderness received a much-needed rest.
Macarena Fernández Génova, a Chilean anthropologist, hiked Torres del Paine’s W Circuit for the first time when she was 13 years old, and in subsequent visits, she’s seen the effect overtourism has on the fragile Patagonian landscape. Trash left behind by campers accumulated on the trails becane food for wildlife, and campers in unauthorized areas trampled the fragile environment. In 2020, Génova co-authored a study on tourism pressure on biodiversity conservation in Torres del Paine, exploring ways to relax this tension. Génova says that if tourism and conservation are going to coexist in Chile, more careful management and investments in outdoor infrastructure are vital.
“We didn’t think that so many people were going to arrive in such a short time,” Génova said, referring to the annual 10 percent visitation increase in the past two decades. “And not much money was invested in planning.” According to Génova, tourism grew so suddenly that it overwhelmed the existing infrastructure and trail system, which dated back to when the park was ranchland with cattle establishing the routes where hikers walk today.
“During the lockdown, the park could finally breathe. Eight months, in nature’s time, is not much, but at least it was something,” Génova continued. “Not having tourists helped everything. Water, flora, fauna. The park got some time to get cleansed.”
José Linnenbrink, the superintendent of Torres del Paine National Park, has worked in the park since 1980. He said that rangers had witnessed natural phenomena and animal behaviors that hadn’t been seen in some parts of the protected area for years. Pumas and guanacos returned to areas usually crowded by tourists.
“I believe it’s important for the park to have some time to rest, not only for nature but also for visitors who will come here,” Linnenbrink said.
The superintendent believes that there might be a lesson to learn from the forced closure and hopes that park officials will consider enacting planned, temporary shutdowns in the future. While his idea may sound novel, it’s not new: Many parks worldwide take some time off to clean the trash visitors leave behind and ease pressure on local biodiversity. In Colombia, Tayrona National Park closes to visitors one month a year for just that purpose. After observing how the pandemic’s forced closure allowed parks to recover, Thailand’s National Parks announced they would temporarily shut every year.
As it often does, money complicates things: many parks depend on visitors’ money to run their operations. Linnenbrink employs about 100 rangers, and when this year’s revenues disappeared, the government shrank Torres del Paine allocated budget. Critics say that the Chilean government is not doing enough to help its parks.
The park opened again on November 26, 2020, but the crowds aren’t exactly back to normal: in January, Torres del Paine received 3,900 visitors, 96% of which were Chileans . Génova believes that the new strict Covid-19 protocols in place might be the first step to start reducing humans’ impact on the local environment.
“Torres del Paine is humanity’s heritage. It’s a place for everybody, and we need to respect it and take care of it,” Génova said.