News ID: 272295
Published: 0742 GMT August 01, 2020

Coronavirus leaves South American tourism operators in the lurch

Coronavirus leaves South American tourism operators in the lurch
The Villarrica Volcano is seen at night from Pucon town, Chile, on September 11, 2019.

In normal years, tourism in Chile's natural paradise, Pucon, is thriving. But with travel restrictions amid a pandemic, residents whose livelihood is dependent on tourism are suffering — with no clear end in sight.

Smoke rises from Villarrica, one of South America's most active volcanoes. Visitors to the city of Pucon are continually amazed at the sight. For residents, though, it is a perfectly normal sight. What is not normal for them is the emptiness of their city, which is usually one of Chile's most-visited locales and a popular stop for outdoorsy travelers, reported.

Here, in the summer season between December and April, there's nothing one can't do: Rafting, riding, mountain biking, kayaking, parasailing, and trekking tours to Villarrica and Quetrupillan, another nearby volcano. At the height of tourist season, the city is swarming with visitors — and workers from the tourism sector cashing in on them. Mid-March this year was the height of the tourism season — then the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and everything changed, cutting of all forms of income for many of Pucon's residents.

As a rafting guide, Ricardo Pinera earns his money in the summer. But this year he hadn't earned enough by the time the pandemic cut off his income. As of mid-March, his income stopped, and now his savings have run out. The 27-year-old has spent all his money on rent and food. Now, in the Chilean winter, he has no more money to buy firewood for the wood-burning stove that heats his apartment. He never thought that the pandemic would cause such a desperate situation. He cannot wait any longer for the financial help his government has promised to give to freelancers. And the city administration? "They do not take care of us enough. They know that tourism brings money. But they don’t seem to care about helping us tourist guides."

Tourism is one of the main sources of income for the 14,000 residents of Pucon. The Villarrica looks out over the landscapes of the La Araucania region, speckled with deep green woods and cobalt blue lakes. In the summer it is a hiking paradise; in the colder months a winter sports paradise. But in the winter Pucon is less visited than in summer — though the volcanoes Villarrica and Quetrupillan are still a major draw for winter sports fans. In effect, tourism brings income into local coffers year-round. Some 300,000 visitors stream into the region annually.

This year, the ski center and national parks are closed. Only a few restaurants are open, and they are just offering take-away meals. The city's streets are abandoned. In recent years, some 15,000 to 40,000 visitors vacationed in La Araucania in July — with Pucon one of the most popular destinations. Currently, due to travel restrictions and quarantine measures, not even domestic visitors are coming — though they, along with Argentinian travelers, are usually some of the main visitors.

There are still a few locals holding out hope for a good summer. December to April is usually the high season, and record numbers of visitors were expected for this year — up to one million by around December 14 of this year. These projections were based on the upcoming total solar eclipse, which will be perfectly visible from the southern parts of South America. Pucon will be one of the best viewing locations in the world. 

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