Hotels inside Torres del Paine: a necessary risk?

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Photo: Javiera IdePhoto: Javiera Ide
By Tomás Moggia
Translation by Rebecca Neal and William Mastick
Long before it became a national park, Torres del Paine attracted visitors from around the world drawn by its unique geography and natural beauty. Huge granite and ice formations, electric-blue and sparkling green lakes, rugged thousand-year-old glaciers, and stretches of impenetrable forests are just some of the unique mosaic that makes Torres del Paine one of Patagonia’s most iconic places.
It took many years for Chile to make the decision to conserve and protect the area, finally declaring it a national park on May 13, 1959. Now, 58 years later, Torres del Paine every year welcomes more and more visitors and explorers from across the globe drawing a record 252,000 tourists in 2016.
In response to this demand, there is now a wide range of lodging options inside the park. But the sheer volume of hotels now residing within the confines of Torres del Paine is unparalleled in the Magallanes region, in Chile, and perhaps even worldwide. 
Torres del Paine has wrestled with this issue since its early days. When the park was first created, the Hostería Pehoé was already there, having previously benefitted from a government concession to cater to tourism. The hotel as such has a longstanding contract with CONAF, the government agency charged with managing Chile’s national park system, obliging them to meet certain standards. 
Photo: Chezmarisse/FlickrPhoto: Chezmarisse/Flickr
Subsequently, other hotels were able to set up inside the park, such as Explora in 1993, then soon thereafter Hotel Lago Grey and Paine Grande Mountain Lodge. There is also a privately-run network of elaborate “refugios” complete with restaurants, bars and campgrounds, five of which are managed by Fantástico Sur and four by Vértice Patagonia.
In an interview, María Elisabeth Muñoz, regional director of CONAF in Magallanes, affirms that Chile’s park service never wanted this kind commercial touristic development in the park. Nevertheless, says Muñoz: “In a centrist country like ours, at some point decisions were made in Santiago, and these decisions included to develop some hotels, mainly in the 1990s.”
Neighboring sheep and livestock ranchers surrounding Torres del Paine for a long time looked upon the national park with suspicion and mistrust. Its focus on conservation clashed with the traditional way of life of ranchers and farmers -- such as bans on hunting local wildlife and stopping cattle from entering the protected area -- activities which had they had been doing for decades with no restrictions. CONAF was seen by them as a problem and a threat rather than a benefit.
But with the rise of tourism over the years, and despite their initial reluctance, little by little the neighboring ranches began to understand that the area’s future was turning in a new direction. Along those lines, the only private lands presently located within the boundaries of the park—yes, inside the park itself—a land area of about 4,400 hectares, eventually shifted from livestock raising to tourism and today is home to two classic park hotels: Hotel Las Torres and EcoCamp Patagonia.
Photo: Wolftone/FlickrPhoto: Wolftone/Flickr
Protecting the national park
Pressure from tourism has also given rise to hotels outside the limits of the park. But this comes as somewhat of a relief for CONAF, since its far less challenging for them in meeting their mission of preserving the protected area. From their perspective, a hotel that lies within Torres del Paine brings more risk than reward regardless of the safeguards that can be implemented through contracts and oversight.
“One way or another, wherever there are people, there's a chance for mistakes no matter if there are rules and laws. Accidents happen and at the end of the day the one who suffers is Mother Nature,” explains Muñoz. “Hotels mean that people want a higher level of comfort, which in turn means higher electricity use. As a result, sustainability becomes more difficult,” she adds.
A recent example: an oil spill at the end of last year contaminated 318 meters of the Paine River, and as a result the management of Explora hotel were charged with environmental pollution. Although not always feasible, it is why CONAF is also placing increasing emphasis on clean, renewable energy systems at the park. But that is not the only concern about the park hotels, they also can negatively impact the landscape and local wildlife.
As a way to monitor and enforce standards at the hotels at the park, CONAF has established a series of unscheduled inspections throughout the year. But they warn such efforts are simply not enough, regardless of the close collaboration that they may have with these private initiatives.
Photo: Refugo Paine Grande (Vertice Patagonia)Photo: Refugo Paine Grande (Vertice Patagonia)
Additionally, CONAF’s view is that Torres del Paine is already at maximum capacity and does not expect more hotels to be built. “We are not inclined to allow more infrastructure of this kind within protected areas,” Muñoz confirms.
And that is not only CONAF's assessment. According to CONAF’s regional director in Magallanes, it is a consensus shared with local communities. A similar situation has unfolded at the new Yendegaia National Park, in the local consultation citizens demonstrated clear opposition to the building of hotels within that park. One more sign that people are increasingly aware of the importance of protecting nature in its wildest state and causing as little impact as possible.