Easter Island’s Famous Moai Stone Statues Are Threatened By Huge Tourism Boost

The moai have stood on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile for over 1,000 years, but some tourists flocking to see these amazing pieces of history have been climbing them, risking damaging them forever. Keith Michael Taylor/Shutterstock

An uptick in annual visits to the famous Easter Island is bringing with it the potential for trouble as local populations learn to balance increased tourism in an already fragile ecosystem.

An estimated 150,000 yearly visitors come to Rapa Nui, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. According to a special presentation of CBS' 60 Minutes dedicated to the island, archaeology experts and local communities are working to cope with increased tourism that has an impact both on the culture of indigenous peoples and the remote ecosystem.

"When I went to Easter Island for the first time in '81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500," said Jo Ann Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, in a statement. "As of last year, the number of tourists who arrived was 150,000 from around the world."

Van Tilburg has been traveling to the island for the last several decades since first visiting as a graduate student in archaeology. Today, she is working alongside the people of Rapa Nui to better understand its history through perspectives of elders.

"By Rapa Nui standards, on an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 is a mob," she said, noting that some travelers disrespect local culture by trampling on top of graves and climbing the statues, presenting a danger to both the island and its culture.

Moais at Rano Raraku volcano on Easter Island, Chile. Ivo Antonie de Rooij/Shutterstock

The island was first noted in western literature when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on it on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, though the people who lived on it at the time were Polynesian descendants of a massive human migration some five centuries earlier. Rapa Nui is best known for its mysterious Moai statues placed on it sometime between 1,100 and 1,400 years ago. Their purpose and mysteries of how they got where they are have fascinated the world ever since, landing the island a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1995.

In 2003, Van Tilburg was given permission from Chile’s national park system and council on monuments to excavate the statues. Her work led to the discovery that the statues also have torsos buried deep below the surface – a credit she awards to her community-based archaeological work.

"I think my patience and diligence was rewarded," she said. "They saw me all those years getting really dirty doing the work. What they don't like is when people come and think they have all the answers and then leave. That feels to the Rapa Nui like their history is being co-opted."

Van Tilburg says studying the island is a way to understand human migration and how marginalized societies rise and fall. Societal changes brought on by colonization and slave-trading in the 19th century eventually led to the collapse of the local population when numbers dropped to just 100.

Today, around 5,700 residents local residents provide local governance over the island. 

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