Easter Island braces for eclipse, tourist influx

6:37 p.m. on July 10, 2010 (EDT)
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Remote and mysterious Easter Island is bracing for an influx of tourists and problems with Sunday's solar eclipse that is being seen as a mixed blessing for the tiny Pacific territory.

The Chilean island of only 160 square kilometers (60 square miles) is expecting an estimated 4,000 visitors, doubling the population of the barren isle which already suffers from water pollution and deforestation.

Four flights were to land Sunday at Mataveri airport with 1,032 people, and more visitors were expected on a dozen boats arriving during the week.

Normally there is just a single flight arriving each day.

But conditions are anything but normal this week on Easter Island, deemed by astronomers as the best place to witness Sunday's alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon, which will occur for a fleeting four minutes and 41 seconds.

The total solar eclipse will begin in French Polynesia, before the Moon's umbra, or shadow, cloaks Easter Island and its mysterious giant statues.

Parts of the globe will be plunged into daytime darkness along a narrow corridor some 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) long across the South Pacific.

Easter Island Governor Pedro Edmunds Paoa told AFP that the island "has the capacity to absorb this number of tourists," saying it is similar to the influx in the austral summer in January

But authorities have increased security, especially around key heritage sites including the large stone statues, or moai, some 3,000 years old, for which Easter Island is famous.

The island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site inhabited by mostly ethnic Polynesians, had been feeling strained even before the eclipse.

The Chilean government last year proposed a law to establish immigration controls on Easter Island and limit the number of tourists in an effort to protect the local population and the fragile ecosystem.

The concerns have been caused by a growing number of visitors who choose to stay indefinitely and a sharp increase in the non-aboriginal population.

But Paul Vargas, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Easter Island at the University of Chile, said Sunday's eclipse "is a good opportunity to strengthen the local economy, which is focused mainly on tourism."

He said the huge earthquake and tsunami that struck mainland Chile February 27 forced the navy to partially evacuate the island because of fears about damage from tides and currents.

In the months since, local authorities have scrambled to let the global tourism industry know that the territory was largely unaffected by the quake.

"We want to show the world that despite the earthquake, we are still in the tourist circuit," Local Mayor Luz del Carmen Zasso said.

On the streets of the capital Hanga Roa, craft fairs abound, and merchants were selling native craft items as well as souvenirs related to the eclipse.

Zasso explained that local officials have taken "all measures to protect the heritage and the environment."

She said visitors will be told to treat the island with respect. "Easter Island is an open-air museum, and the eclipse is part of this museum," she said.

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