Traveling to Patagonia Redux

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Photo: Timothy DhalleinePhoto: Timothy Dhalleine


After a crisis in the sector due to the pandemic, tourism in Patagonia is coming back.

By Rodrigo Barria, Jimmy Langman and Wayne Bernhardson
Editor's note: The following is from Issue 26.
Last month, one hundred taxis in central London were painted over completely with a tempting, colorful image of a bike rider zooming through a Chilean vineyard next to the slogan: “Wine lover? Go for Chile! Come Now, visit us.”
That certainly grabbed the attention of potential globetrotters in England. It's one part of a bold, new advertising campaign launched in November by Chile’s publlc-private Tourism Promotion Advisory Council. Implemented in five languages to promote inbound travel to Chile from international markets — principally targeting Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, United States, Europe, and Canada — the big promotional push heralds the reopening of tourism to the Southern Cone and it’s Patagonia region – and just in time for the busy, beautiful Austral summer season.
In Chile, the tourism industry is excited about the barriers coming down for travelers to head to its iconic destinations, from Easter Island to Torres del Paine in Patagonia.
The country twice closed its borders during the pandemic, first in March 2020, then reopening in November before closing once again in April 2021 in response to a resurgence in the covid virus around the world. In November 2021, Chile opened to foreign travelers again, but with stiff rules requiring a negative PCR test and vaccine approval prior to arrival in Santiago that made travel a slow and messy maze. That highly discouraged travelers.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Andes, in April 2022 Argentina went from being one of the most difficult countries in South America to enter during the pandemic to the easiest, completely dropping all its restrictions. Chile, however, took the cautious approach, not dropping its most difficult entry requirements until September.
In London, 100 taxis circulated for one month promoting Chile as an ideal destination for adventure tourism. Photo: Chile TravelIn London, 100 taxis circulated for one month promoting Chile as an ideal destination for adventure tourism. Photo: Chile Travel
A 10-year setback
The pandemic brought tourism to a standstill in most of the world over the past two years. For Patagonia, the massive impact of covid-19 is perhaps best reflected in the Magallanes region, home to the Chile’s top nature tourism draw, Torres del Paine National Park. The tourism industry is an especially big piece of the economic pie in Chile’s southernmost region, a sparsely inhabited place where they abound with some 11,000 beds available for potential tourists.
Cristóbal Benítez, manager of the Torres del Paine Hotel and Tourism Services Association, cites with dismay some of the stark numbers caused by the tourism shutdown there. "The pandemic impacted the entire chain of businesses linked to tourism in the destination. In the high season of 2020-2021, at the height of the pandemic, there was a drastic decrease in visits to Torres del Paine National Park, a decline of 91.6% compared to the previous season,” says Benítez.
Despite the best efforts of the tourism sector in Magallanes to offer competitive rates to spur the travel economy during the pandemic, the total number of visits last season reached a total of 114,051 visits, a figure that was 44% below pre-pandemic levels and far and away most of those travelers last year came from the domestic market (about 90%). “That level of visitation for the season essentially signifies approximately a 10-year setback in the total number of visits per season to Torres del Paine National Park.”
Now, the outlook is looking up.
We’re still in the early stages. For example, according, to the Federation of Tourism Businesses of Chile (Fedetur), pre-pandemic about 450,000 foreign tourists arrived each December. This year, it is expected that about 323,000 travelers will arrive, in other words international tourism in Chile is still down 30 percent.
However, the B2B market – travelers coming on package deals via tour operators in other markets – is rebounding fast. In November, it accounted for 70% of travel to the region and is quickly approaching pre-pre-pandemic levels. Although the total number of flights to the region is still down, all three major Chilean airlines are operating regular flights again to Patagonia’s gateway airports. And Chile says for the 2022-2023 cruise season, 380 ships have plans to sail their windy shores bringing with them more than 375,000 passengers to the long, thin country by April 2023.
On the Argentine side of Patagonia, they are even more optimistic. The president of the Instituto Fueguino de Turismo (Infuetur), Dante Querciali, estimates that the arrival of cruise ships this year will result in some 200,000 visitors and 540 different vessels having a port of call in Ushuaia. "We have a 70% of visitor recovery right now, although we still need to restore our international tourism,” says Querciali.
According to Elisa Rodríguez, a professional tour guide in Argentina, “Calafate and Chaltén are having record seasons since last year, there’ve never so many visitors as these last years, and this season is going to top them all.” In October the airport saw its eighth straight monthly record for passengers and, on a visit last August, Aerolíneas Argentinas’ chief commercial officer Fabián Lombardo predicted the upcoming season would be “magnificent,” with flights from provincial cities like Córdoba, Trelew, Bariloche and Ushuaia complementing the usual services from Buenos Aires and facilitating connections with these additional destinations. He also expects many Brazilians to take advantage of the increased services. Analía Rupar-Przebieda, an Argentine travel agent based in Southern California, estimates that 90 percent of her Patagonia-bound clients are headed to Calafate.
With a weak peso that makes foreign travel costly for Argentines, augmented by a federal “Pre-Viaje” program that reimburses them up to 50 percent of domestic tourism expenses, there has indeed been a recent boom in domestic travel. Although Argentina is due to end that special program in 2023, it may well have a lingering effect and, coupled with a newly advantageous exchange rate for foreigners who pay with debit and with credit cards — competition for services such as flights and hotels throughout the country could be strong, especially in Patagonia.
The new tourists
Times have been tough all around, but some tourism businesses have repositioned themselves during this dark period to meet the demands of a new type of traveler in the post-pandemic era. Tour operators tell us that tourists are more than ever now looking to reconnect with nature, and they are seeking out unique experiences in the least crowded destinations possible. That description fits Patagonia like a glove.
Jorge Moller, Latin America program director for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and co-founder of Regenera, a Chilean NGO that advises communities and businesses on travel issues, says the covid era has only accelerated the shift toward sustainable travel, both by travelers and travel providers.
“A very strong appreciation of the rural world and the quality of life it represents emerged,” says Moller of the changes to the tourism market. “Natural areas are nowadays a very strong target of visitation for the longed-for reencounter with nature and open spaces. Sustainability is also a core value that has arrived to establish itself during the pandemic, which is very positive.”
At the same time, Moller says many travel companies have used the pandemic shutdown to retool and rethink their business. “During the pandemic there was also a big increase in entrepreneurship, which has translated into tourism companies developing a higher value experience with more variety, with new gastronomic proposals, virtual tours, and a greater emphasis on the environmental and cultural components in their offerings.”
Before the pandemic, Patagonian tourism was on top of the world, with each year witnessing record-high numbers of visitors making the long trek to South America’s southernmost region. Now, travelers can finally return to this remote, spectacular land of wild rivers and mountains, immense glaciers, lush-green forests, windswept coasts, and amazing wildlife. Chileans and Argentines eagerly await.