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Chile’s president bows to pressure, reopens Torres del Paine

Santiago, Chile – 04/01/2012 – as published by The Santiago Times.

A week since fire began, 80 percent of national park declared safe for tourists to return.

The world-famous Torres del Paine National Park in far southern Chilean reopened to the public on Wednesday, according to President Sebastián Piñera, despite large wildfires on park grounds that are still not fully contained.

Piñera had initially said the park would “remain closed at least through the end of January,” when declaring the area a catastrophe zone last Friday.

Over 80 percent of the park is now open to tourists, including the Camp Torres and Ascencio Valley, Hotel Towers, Camp Horns, Camp Seron, Campsite Blue Lagoon, Camp Dickson and Los Perros.

Meanwhile, firefighters continue to tackle the fires, which have swept the region for over a week, in the south and central regions of the country. The fire damaged or destroyed 32,000 acres of forest and brush land, and has put local plants and wildlife at risk.

“We still have to work for full control of the situation,” Piñera told La Tercera.

“Unfortunately because of the drought and the heat wave we still have a situation of extreme vulnerability regarding fires,” Piñera said. Chile has seen dozens of fires nationwide in recent days, with five regions of the country on red alert as of Monday.

Pablo Longueira, the Minister of Economy, Development and Tourism, expects to reopen the full park by the end of the month.

Torres del Paine National Park, a 927-square-mile area of granite mountains, Andean forests and stunning turquoise lakes in southern Patagonia, has been ravaged by wildfires since Dec. 27. Police believe an Israeli tourist is responsible for starting the fire.

Although Longueira told press the park’s reopening would not pose a risk to tourists, many visitors have decided to delay their trip to the region, which will undoubtedly impact the region.

The summer months of January and February make up high season for tourism in Chile. Tourist officials say that the park receives some 150,000 visitors and tourism brings the region US$200 million each year.

Yet some local tour operators are questioning the move to reopen the park as the fire continues.

William Penhollow, owner of Erratic Rock Hostel, a popular destination for backpackers en route to the park, suggested Piñera bowed to big business interests in reversing his early decision to close the park for all of January.

“It is ridiculous that a few rich businessmen can overturn a mandate made by the President to fill their pockets,” Penhollow told The Santiago Times. “You only have to look at the names of the people in that backroom and you can see that they twisted Piñera’s ear and arm.”

Though he said his hostel has not suffered a lull in visitors since the park was announced closed, Penhollow was quick to condemn “profiteers” whom he said exploit the UNESCO Heritage site.

“We need to suffer a bit,” he went on to say, “and stop thinking of the park as a cash cow.”

Tourism Secretary Jacqueline Plass said as an interim safety measure park authorities will allow  80 visitors each day to visit specifically authorized hiking trails. Authorities plan to meet in early April 9 to plan broader measures for next year.

Penhollow suggested limiting tourists, implementing a patrol system and daily checks of permits as additional controls to protect the park from future issues. He said he hopes the April meeting will spur a “real plan” from the government to uphold its commitment to the region.