Social Sustainability of Tourism for the Indigenous Rapa Nui on Easter Island

By Stephanie Hess


Although there are many definitions, tourism can be described as a system based on the movement of people, goods, capital, and ideas between home regions and destinations, including activities undertaken during a tourist’s stay, facilities for tourist needs, and societal processes (Mathieson and Wall 1982; Saarinen 2006). Tourism continues to expand worldwide. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), over 1.1 billion tourists travelled internationally in 2014 (UNWTO 2015). This mass tourism can cause many environmental, economic, and social impacts on destinations which stem from poor planning and development (Hall and Lew 1998). Mass tourism has been described as a “spectre haunting our planet” demonstrating that tourism practices must be modified for the future well-being of societies and environments (Tefler and Sharpley 2008, 31).

As a result of negative impacts and an increased focus on environmental and social issues in the world, ideas of sustainability have begun to dominate discourses on international development. The goal of sustainable development is to create a system that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” according to the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (Hall and Lew 1998, 3). The WCED has developed five principles of sustainability which include holistic planning and strategy making, the importance of preserving ecological processes, the protection of human heritage and biodiversity, a method of development that can be sustained for future generations, and achievement of a better balance between fairness and opportunity among nations (Hall and Lew 1998). Sustainable tourism was adapted from these ideas and is accepted as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental needs of visitors, the industry, and the environment and host communities” (UNEP 2013, 266). Additionally, some experts contend it is necessary to have an educational aspect for tourists so they leave with a higher awareness of sustainability (UNEP 2013).

Most definitions of sustainable tourism highlight the ecological, environmental, economic, or social aspects. Significant focus is usually placed on the ecological or environmental, including as main goals the conservation of species and ecosystems, effective management of resources, and preservation of genetic diversity (Hall and Lew 1998; Telfer and Sharpley 2008). Economically, tourism can bring income, employment, and entrepreneurial activity that can generate poverty alleviation (Mathieson and Wall 1982; UNEP 2013). The last factor, which is most important for this research, is the social aspect of sustainable tourism that is often overlooked in sustainable tourism planning. This facet must ensure the stability of the native population’s traditional culture, social order, and social structure. The success of the environment and economy depends on the social aspect of tourism since the only way to meet economic and environmental objectives is to have participation and support of all groups involved (Hall and Lew 1998; Tsaur, Lin and Lin 2006).

Tourists have the opportunity to interact with local populations and host communities. To create social and cultural sustainability of a tourist destination, there cannot be negative changes in the quality of life of the indigenous people, and these individuals must be involved in the management of tourism resources, including direct contact with tourists (Mathieson and Wall 1982; Cater 1993). Ignorance of culture and lifestyle can be damaging, but with engagement, there can be a more equal relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Easter Island has become a popular tourist destination, but it is not clear if the focus of that tourism is inclusive of the indigenous people or if they play an integral role in how tourism is managed on the island. The loss of culture and negative social impacts can be especially problematic on a remote island environment such as Easter Island (Conlin and Baum 1995). The purpose of this research is to examine the social component of sustainable tourism on Easter Island with respect to the indigenous Rapa Nui population.

Literature Review and Research Context

To set up the study, I examined research on social sustainability because it is a newer concept that can be difficult to define and understand.  I then considered case studies on other indigenous populations. Few studies have developed frameworks for social sustainability and a familiarity with social sustainability and its importance will make it easier to incorporate its relevance into sustainable tourism.

Concept Development of Social Sustainability in Tourism

The concept of sustainability and sustainable development emerged in the 1990s and has focused on economic, environmental, and social factors. The social aspect of sustainability is usually overlooked where its study and importance have not been perceived as equal to environment and economic aspects until the 2000s (see Figure 1) (Marghescu 2005; Colantonio 2007). Social sustainability is important because people cannot address environmental and economic concerns and aspects of sustainability until their basic needs are met and their social impact is validated (Vallance, Perkins and Dixon 2011) According to Colantonio (2007), the main ingredients to social sustainability is the meeting of basic needs, overcoming disadvantage, fostering personal responsibility and needs of future generations, developing social capital, ensuring a fair distribution of opportunities in development, fostering tolerance and acknowledgement of cultural diversity, and empowering individuals to participate in decision making and development. If the industry is dominated by outside interest and companies, host communities cannot retain benefits and conflicts may arise since needs and interest are not represented fairly.

  Figure 1:  Different dimensions of sustainable development and their relative importance (Source: Marghescu, 2005). 

Figure 1: Different dimensions of sustainable development and their relative importance (Source: Marghescu, 2005). 

On a global scale, almost all indigenous people and territory have been affected to some extent by tourism (Weaver 2010).  The United Nations defines ‘indigenous’ as people who have self-identification, history with pre-settler societies, links with territory, a distinct economic system and culture, a non-dominant status in society, and the desire to maintain and perpetuate aspects of ancestral culture and lifestyle (Weaver 2010). Tourism is a way to address economic, social, and cultural challenges facing indigenous people and promote cross-cultural interaction. Governments play a large role in this realm as they create the policies, consulting services, and financial assistance for tourism development in indigenous areas (Hinch and Butler 2007).

A case study by Snow and Wheeler (2000) in Panama shows the effects of tourism on two indigenous groups. Their study compares the difference in tourism benefits when the tourist operations are guided by the indigenous leaders compared to outside tour operators. They first looked at the Kuna people, who live on a series of islands and the coastal mainland in Panama. They have been very successful in maintaining traditional customs while remaining open to tourists for approximately 60 years (Snow and Wheeler 2000). The indigenous people themselves sit on a Congress for the Tourism Commission to issue political decisions regarding topics such as the redistribution of profits and limitations on hotel numbers. All tourism infrastructure is owned by the Kuna, which protects them from outside economic exploitation. Some changes to their land and culture were inevitable such as signs of economic degradations and a shift away from agriculture, resulting in a dependency on food imports. The local caciques or chiefs have become less powerful and women have been challenging their tradition roles to have a voice and decision-making capabilities in the community (Snow and Wheeler 2000). In the case of the Emberá and Wounaan people in Panama, their proximity to settlements has led to increased assimilation and interaction with non-indigenous people. Instead of possessing control, they are paid by tourism companies, usually $5-10 per tourist.  However, they are restricted by the demands of these companies (Snow and Wheeler 2000). For example, they are instructed to wear traditional clothing and construct building out of natural materials where resistance will result in no payment. On one side, this can be viewed as a cultural revival and an incentive for people to remain in their villages rather than migrate to Panama City for work. On the other hand, it questions the authenticity of the culture and commodified displays for tourism, showing tourists a representation of the past rather than of the present (Snow and Wheeler 2000). This raises important questions regarding the empowerment of the indigenous group as a stakeholder under this arrangement. These two examples show the importance and the diversity of arrangements that include indigenous culture in the tourism industry.

Assessment Framework for Social Sustainability in Tourism

Woodcraft (2012) used a framework to study social sustainability based on power, voice, access to resources, decision-making, and accountability. He uses four dimensions: voice and influence, social and cultural life, amenities and infrastructure, and change in the neighborhood. Woodcraft employed this framework to analyze communities in the United Kingdom and found through surveys that indicators in “voice and influence” along with the “social and cultural life” were not being met. His framework includes indicators that are broad enough to be applied to almost any area of the world. The category of “voice and influence” includes measures such as the perception of ability to influence the local area, involvement to tackle problems, existence of informal groups and associations to make views known, and the responsiveness of local government to local issues. The “social and cultural life” indicators are the sense of belonging and identity, the ways in which people of different backgrounds coexist, and the quality of life and well-being (Woodcraft 2012). For the purpose of this study I focus on these two dimensions, voice and influence and social and cultural life, in a study of the indigenous people on Easter Island.

Newspaper Content Analysis

Although media communication outlets have existed for centuries to discuss relevant world issues and news, the study of mass communication is fairly new with many analytical methods (Riffe, Lacy, and Fico 2005). Content analysis methods can be used to make inferences from texts and identify intentions of communicators, while reflecting on the attitudes, interests, and values of population groups (Krippendorff 2004; Riffe, Lacy, and Fico 2005). Relevance sampling, which aims to select available texts that contribute to answering a specific research question, will be the most important method of content analysis for this research as it uses a conceptual hierarchy to lower search results and tests to a concise sample that can be analyzed (Krippendorff 2004).

Stakeholder Analysis

In tourism, a stakeholder is considered to be any group or individual that has a vested interest, positively or negatively, in tourist activity or the effects from tourist activity (Sautter and Leisen 1999; Aas, Ladkin and Fletcher 2005). Similar to the neglect of the social aspect of sustainability in tourism in research, stakeholder processes in many cases have also been ignored (Waligo, Clarke, and Hawkins 2013). Tourism can be broken down into six important stakeholder groups: tourists, industry, local communities, government, special interest groups and educational institutions (Waligo, Clarke, and Hawkins 2013). Issues in tourism decisions arise when decisions are being made in a top down system where experts are making decisions that may not reflect the population’s interests (Byrd 2007). Assessing stakeholders and analyzing stakeholder interests can reveal current and future problems that various groups deem as important and bring them collaboratively to decision-making bodies (Varvasovsky and Brugha 2000). As long as the involvement is fair, efficient, and stable and includes the knowledge and wisdom of all stakeholders, it is effective since it allows the acquisition of different perspectives to find common ground and create common goals (Byrd 2007). This gives a voice to those who are most affected by tourism and allows solutions to be developed more collaboratively as long as the stakeholders are included throughout the entire process (Aas, Ladkin, and Fletcher 2005, Byrd 2007).

Statement of the Research Purpose and Questions

This research focuses on the social sustainability and social impacts of sustainable tourism on Easter Island. I examine the influence indigenous people have in the tourism industry and if their voices are being heard in the media to influence tourism decision making. I also examine the extra-local perceptions of social sustainability on the island. Two research questions guide the study:

1.    Whose voices are being represented in the media in regards to the tourism industry on Easter Island?

This question examines who is being represented in Chilean newspapers. I particularly consider if the indigenous people have power in influencing the political decisions concerning tourism and how their voices and interests are being heard by the public. This question also explores if concerns for social sustainability and sustainable tourism are being addressed.

2.    What is the perception of sustainable tourism and social sustainability on the island according to stakeholders?

This question addresses to what extent social sustainability is present on the island based on observations of first hand visitors, people in Chile, and tour companies who have the most exposure to the tourist activities on the island. Based on the perceptions of sustainable tourism, it can be determined if the tourism industry meets certain indicators for social sustainability.

The answers to these two research questions address the forms and level of sustainable tourism on Easter Island as represented in the media and through tourist experiences. I particularly focus on the social aspects of sustainability which are usually overlooked as not being as important as the ecological and economic factors (Figure 1). The remoteness of the Island and control by the Chilean government prevents significant knowledge of the issues on the island to reach a large world audience. This research can lead to better insights of the indigenous population on Easter Island and other indigenous tourism destinations across the globe.

Study Area

Easter Island, better known as Isla de Pascua in Spanish or Rapa Nui by the indigenous people, is a 166km² island that is 3,700km from the mainland of Chile in the Pacific Ocean (see Figure 2) (Campbell 2008).

  Figure 2:  Map showing the location of Easter Island in relation to Chile and the Island itself (Source: Google Maps). 

Figure 2: Map showing the location of Easter Island in relation to Chile and the Island itself (Source: Google Maps). 


The remoteness of the island is an important factor as it has been described as the “loneliest inhabited settlement in the world” (Iyer 2004, 185). The island was found by Europeans on Easter Day in 1722, giving it its current name (Delsing 2015).  The island was annexed by Chile on September 9, 1888 with the interest of using the island as a naval base. A treaty was signed between the Chilean government and the Rapa Nui chiefs, but some Rapa Nui do not believe that this agreement was legitimate.  There are also discrepancies between documents of the encounter in Spanish and in the Rapa Nui language (Delsing 2015). Tourism has grown since annexation, especially with the construction of an airport in 1967, and the acceptance of Chilean sovereignty over the island, except for the decline during the 1973 overthrow of the government in Santiago, Chile’s capital, where 90 percent of flights originate (Porteous 1980; IGWA 2012; Romero 2012; Delsing 2015). Tourism allowed Easter Island to become a part of the world economy and more connected with global communication (Delsing 2015) Around 80,000 visitors traveled to Easter Island per year in the past five years while only 14,000 visited per year in the mid-1990’s (Economist 2009; Long 2014). This increase has raised questions regarding sustainability of tourism on the Island.

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    Figure 3:  The main tourist attraction on Easter Island. The top two photographs are some of the 900 Maoi statues, carved by the ancient Rapa Nui people. The bottom left photograph is of Rano Kau, a crater lake. The bottom right photograph is of a traditional Polynesian dance that is a part of the Rapa Nui culture. (Source: Lonely Planet)

Figure 3: The main tourist attraction on Easter Island. The top two photographs are some of the 900 Maoi statues, carved by the ancient Rapa Nui people. The bottom left photograph is of Rano Kau, a crater lake. The bottom right photograph is of a traditional Polynesian dance that is a part of the Rapa Nui culture. (Source: Lonely Planet)

  Figure 4:  Map of Easter Island showing the national park areas and locations of tourist attractions (Source: Sernatur). 

Figure 4: Map of Easter Island showing the national park areas and locations of tourist attractions (Source: Sernatur). 

The main portion of the island that is impacted by tourism is the Parque Nacional Rapa Nui which occupies 41.64 percent of the island (Municipalidad de Isla de Pascua 2009). Tourists mainly come to see the mysterious giant stone moai statues that were carved by the indigenous people, but there are other attractions on the island (Figure 3 and 4).


The moai or “living faces” are the real wealth on Easter Island and are seen as protectors (Iyer 2004). In the past, the indigenous population almost shrank to extinction corresponding to the overuse of resources and deforestation on the Island.  However, the definitive reason is still debated and may have resulted from European contact with disease and slavery (Economist 2009; Delsing 2015).

The indigenous Rapa Nui people, who descend from Polynesian ancestors, are still present on the island and are impacted in many ways by tourism. For sustainable tourism, one aspect is the sustainability of the indigenous population and their incorporation into tourist activities and decisions on the island. The ecological damage that is occurring from tourism, includes the contamination of water and garbage that is piling up due to increasing tourist numbers. Moreover, the commodification of culture is affecting the local population and, in many cases, they have little say in policies that are created in the Chilean capital (Economist, 2009; Delsing 2015).

The mainland of Chile controls most of the tourism and policies toward tourism on the Island even though they are a five-hour flight away. The Rapa Nui do not have recognition in the Chilean constitution so there is no legislation to ensure they can participate in politics (IGWA 2012). With the Chilean control, more Chileans have been touring the island and seeking permanent residence. This has led to a 54 percent increase in population where Chileans now outnumber the indigenous by 200 people (Romero 2012). These Chileans are being offered subsidized housing and are taking tourism jobs and management positions away from the local people (Romero 2012). Specifically, only one-third of tourism jobs are held by the indigenous; the rest are held by Chileans or foreigners (Campbell 2008). As for the Chilean tourists, they are not interested in the cultural aspects of the island, only the recreational aspects of the beaches and swimming pools.  Thus, they are not economically contributing to the local people (Economist 2009).

Thoughts of breaking ties with Chile have been discussed, but with almost 80 percent of the economy based on tourism, the Island depends on Chile for health care, food, telecommunications, and air travel (Romero 2012). It would be a challenge for the Island to become self-sufficient and avoid a repeat of an ecologic disaster while still preserving the culture and history of the indigenous Rapa Nui. President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, states that a project launched for sustainable tourism will give the local community a leading role in the promotion of their heritage, and the director of the program believes that the impacts of tourism can be reduced by finding a balance between the needs for preservation and the development of the community (UNESCO 2009).  

Data and Methods

The stakeholders identified for the study include the indigenous Rapa Nui, Chilean government officials, tourism businesses, Chilean citizens, and foreign tourists. All of these groups have unique perceptions and an influence on Easter Island’s tourism industry.  This corresponds to the categories identified by Waligo, Clarke, and Hawkins (2013) as important stakeholders for analyzing tourism and the top-down approach that typicaly influences decision making (see Table 1). My analysis considers whose voices are being represented and their perceptions of the current tourism industry.

Whose voices are being represented in the media in regards to the tourism industry on Easter Island?

Media can be an important source of information on tourism activities and perceptions of those activities on Easter Island. It constructs the images and perceptions that tourists have of the identity of indigenous people and issues they are facing (Hinch and Butler 2007). In many cases with the isolation of the Island, the media is the only representation that the people of Chile and

the rest of the world has of the activities on Easter Island. The data that I used to address the second research question came from analyzing newspapers that are available online to see whose voices are represented, if the indigenous people have a voice to express their opinions and desires for tourism on Easter Island, and whether their voices vary among newspaper media sources. To accomplish this, I analyzed direct quotes from newspaper articles to determine which group has the most public voice in the media, inferring that the groups with the most representation have the most control over decision-making. 

The first newspaper that I analyzed was El Mercurio, a popular, conservative daily newspaper that is distributed from the Chilean capital city of Santiago. To search for these newspaper articles, I used the database LexisNexis and searched within the sub-category Foreign Language News. The time frame that I focused on was from 2000 to 2015 and used the search term “‘isla de pascua’ turismo” to obtain an appropriate number of articles to examine the represented voices through quotes.

The second newspaper that I analyzed was La Nacion, another daily newspaper that is distributed from Santiago. This publication is different from El Mercurio because it is owned by the Chilean government rather than by a private entity. This publication was not available on LexisNexis; therefore, I searched for articles directly on the newspaper’s website, maintaining the time frame of 2000-2015 and search terms of “‘isla de pascua’ turismo” for consistency between the two searches. From these media sources, I compared the total number of reports, the stakeholders’ voices that are represented, and the content of the narratives, particularly focusing on the indigenous people and what the quotes reveal about sustainable tourism. 

What is the perception of sustainable tourism and social sustainability on the island according to stakeholders?

To address this question I used primary data from semi-structured interviews with tourists and Chileans on the island through emails and by contacting tourism industries on the island. The questions for the interviews explored the stakeholder perceptions of tourism, sustainability, and social sustainability to better understand their perceptions of sustainability tourism and social sustainability on Easter Island (see Table 2). Semi-structured interviews allow for data collection that was structured but broad enough for unexpected or new information to surface that may be relevant to the study (sensu Varvasovszky and Brugha 2000).


Whose voices are being represented in the media in regards to the tourism industry on Easter Island?

The LexisNexis search resulted in 53 articles from El Mercurio. These articles contained a total of 62 quotes from different stakeholder representatives. In La Nacion, there were a total of 14 articles with 15 individuals quoted. These groups could be narrowed down to three different stakeholder groups: indigenous, Chileans and members of the Chilean government, and members of the tourism industry (see Table 3).

There are a few outliers that did not fit into the three categories that I placed in an “other” category. Those quotes were from European businessmen, an American scientist, a professor, and international tourists. In both newspapers, it can be seen that the Chilean Government has the most influence in the media and are quoted most often as sources for articles related to tourism on Easter Island.  

The narratives in these quotes are usually in favor of or representing the cited group. The indigenous people are still disconnected and marginalized from decisions being made in Santiago which can be seen in the newspaper quotes. For example, a few quotes from the indigenous shows the animosity towards the Chilean government. A Rapa Nui woman, Maria Atan Pakarati, said:

"Esto no es Chile. Esto no está en el mapa de Chile, está en la mitad del mar. Porque la sangre que corre por aquí - esta sangre, no es chilena. Es Rapanui." [“This is not Chile. This is not on the map of Chile, this is the middle of the sea. Because the blood that runs through here- this blood, it is not Chilean, it is Rapa Nui.”]

Another member of the Rapa Nui indigenous group said:

"No se puede obligar a nadie a sentirse chileno. El Estado, lo que tiene que hacer, es asegurarse que toda la gente dentro de sus límites esté bien, y parte de eso es admitir que son diferentes” [“It is not possible to force anyone to feel Chilean. The State, what it has to do, is assure that all of the people within its borders are well, and part of that is to admit that they are different.”]

Sustainability is addressed in the tourism articles by a few different stakeholders. Some focus on the environmental aspect. María Ignacia Benítez, a member of the Chilean government environmental office said in regards to recycling:

ya no sólo es valorable que un lugar tan apartado se haga cargo de sus residuos, sino que además demuestra que es posible avanzar en materias como el turismo y el desarrollo sustentable,” [“It is not only valuable that a place so distant takes care of their waste, but that it also demonstrates that it is possible to progress in areas such as tourism and sustainable development.”]

Another member of the government assured the need for both cultural and environmental conservation. Mónica Bahamónez said:

entre las medidas de mitigación que se han adoptado en el último tiempo para conservar los recursos arqueológicos como los moai, altares ceremoniales (ahu) y manifestaciones de arte, se encuentra la creación de senderos y la instauración de cercos, entre otras iniciativas, para evitar un mayor deterioro, por el accionar humano y el desplazamiento de los animales utilizados en pastoreo.” [“Between the mitigation methods that have been adopted recently to conserve archaeological resources like the moai, ceremonial altars (ahu) and manifestation of art, they have found the creation of trails and the installation of fences, among other initiatives, to avoid a further deterioration, by the action of humans and the shifting of animals used in shepherding.”]

The knowledge that the government has of these issues is reassuring, but in some cases they are not using the indigenous people to address the concerns. Domingo Angel Cabeza, director of Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales (CMN) said:

“El Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales (CMN) está trabajando en Isla de Pascua en la consolidación de una Comisión Internacional, compuesta por científicos chilenos y extranjeros especialistas en patrimonio arqueológico, etnografía, botánica, geología y geomorfología, vulcanología, entre otras áreas de investigación." [“The Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales (CMN) is working on Easter Island in the consolidation of an International Commission, composed of Chilean scientists and foreign specialists in archeological heritage, ethnography, botany, geology and geomorphology, volcanology, among other areas of research.”].

Only a few quotes address the issue of social sustainability. The first is from Noemí Pakarati a Rapa Nui woman who talks of the past, the Rapa Nui language, and the state today. She said:

“Hoy es muy feo, muchas cosas han cambiado. Recuerdo cuando niña. No había nadie… Era la pura isla. No puedo sentir en otro idioma. Hay palabras en rapanui que es imposible traducir. La pérdida del idioma es lo que más le preocupa. No me molestan los continentales, sino la gente que viene aquí a hacer cambios.” [“Today it is very ugly, many things have changed. I remember when I was young. There was no one…it was the pure island. I cannot feel in another language. There are words in Rapa Nui that are impossible to translate. The loss of the language is what worries me most. The continentals do not bother me, but the people who come here to make changes.”].

A member of the Chilean government, Óscar Acuña, secretary of Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales said:

La isla tiene un potencial turístico, y esta inversión que se realizará le puede dar sustentabilidad al pueblo isleño." [“The island has tourist potential, and the investment that will be carried out can give sustainability to the island people.”]


What is the perception of sustainable tourism and social sustainability on the island according to stakeholders?

The interview questions that I used to discover perceptions from the different stakeholder groups were split into three sections (Table 3): basic information about the island, perception of sustainability, and perceptions of the indigenous, which relates to social sustainability.

Basic Information

The first section of basic information was to gain an insight that each stakeholder has about Easter Island. The first stakeholder group, the tourists, had different reasons for visiting the island and perceptions of tourism. I conducted five interviews for this study. I interviewed three tourists, two who travelled there in 2015 because they were studying in Chile and the third travelled to the island in 2009 after being interested in it and dreaming of visiting from his childhood when he saw the island in National Geographic and documentaries. Their perceptions show different views and perspectives of the island and reflects conflicts that were occurring between the tourism industries and the indigenous people of Easter Island.

The tourists gathered the importance of the tourism industry for the island and witnessed firsthand the conflict between the Rapa Nui and the Chilean tourism industries. A tourist states:

“Most islanders work in the industry. Some make art to sell to tourists. Many survive by gardening & fishing.” Another tourist comments on the conflict “Tourist operations on the island were very disrupted by the ongoing conflict on the island when we arrived. Usually tourists pay a fee to enter the park, but the Rapa Nui people had kicked CONAF out of control and taken over the park themselves.  They were not charging people the park fee, because most of this money doesn't go back to the people.”  The other tourist who visited at the same time said “the people were revolting against the tourism agency which takes the majority of the island’s profits back to the mainland.”

The Chilean that I interviewed said that he is not very familiar with the island and has only seen the tourist attractions through the television. The tour agency that I interviewed, Easter Island Travel (, gave me basic information about the services that the company provides. All of these activities have significant impacts that influence sustainable tourism.

“The most common tour involves visiting archaeological sites, accompanied by a guide to tell passengers about history, legends and culture. We also offer hikes, recreational tours, and more extreme adventure tours such as caving and multiple day horseback riding.”


The next group of questions involved perceptions of sustainability on the island. Overall, responses focus on the environmental destruction from tourism, but also includes aspects of the culture that is unique to Easter Island.

The tourist who travelled there in 2009 said that “At the time, Rapa Nui was able to sustain mass tourism which included visits by cruise liners and luxury round the world airline trips. How long this will last is anyone’s guess. There is talk of casinos and yacht clubs which would place a severe strain on the infrastructure and the traditional culture.” Another tourist also commented on the sustainability of the culture and anthropological structures saying “What was interesting was the lack of protection on the Moai structures. There are about 800 or so of the large, heavy heads all over the island and the majority of them are without guard or protection. The sustainability and longevity of these beautiful creations really depends on the dignity of the people that visit.”

         The tour agency described the perception of sustainability as a responsibility for tourism to reinstate and incorporating this ideal into tourist activities.

“The island gives us so much, so we are doing what we can to give something back to the island. Before wanting to take care of nature and the environment, one must get to know it and learn to love it. We offer unique opportunities to connect with this island when we travel by horse for several days around the island, sleeping in volcanic craters, in caves by the ocean and mountain tops. As the whole journey is done by horse, and we cook food we bring and fish we catch over open fire, these experiences are very eco-friendly and sustainable.”

Also mentioning the revival of sustainability practices they said

“In ancient times, native Rapa Nui people had it all under control. They knew all about sustainable living. Today, modern culture has consumed much of the ancient knowledge. A rapid increase in population and tourism has given this island new challenges to face, and we have to learn these things again.”

Indigenous and Social Sustainability

The last group of interview questions had to do with the perceptions of the role of the indigenous on Easter Island and the tourist-indigenous relationship and interactions. The responses from the tourists and the tour agency come from personal experiences, while the Chilean perspective comes from other information and experiences that they gained on the mainland, whether through history, media, or word of mouth.

The tourist who travelled to the island in 2009 said of the Rapa Nui, “I found the indigenous people to be gentle and friendly, although a little shy. No one tried to hustle me or ask for money, which is not always the case in third world countries.” The same tourist describes their perceptions of social sustainability and the influence of the Rapa Nui by saying,

“Major decisions have always been made in Santiago. The islanders’ lives have greatly improved and tourism has done wonders for the economy. Yet there is a small but vocal independence movement. Economic dependence on Chile makes independence seem unlikely.”

One of the tourists that visited in 2015 describes their view that

“It seems like the Indigenous people really control the island and have historically, however there is a big division between the mainlanders who come to live there and the Rapa Nui. The Rapa Nui claim the island cannot sustain more people and that the mainlanders should be prevented from immigrating over from now on. It seems like a very delicate topic.”

Another tourist perspective is:

“All of the people that we interacted with were incredibly kind and helpful. I think the native people understand that in order to promote tourism, this kind of attitude is necessary. I also think the indigenous people should definitely be in charge of their own island’s tourism, that way more of the profits can be reinvested in the island itself instead of taken back to mainland Chile. I have heard talks of Isla de Pascua becoming independent from Chile, which might be the best move for the island. Or at least the native people should be included in the tourism of the island, because they can supply the most hearty knowledge and understanding of the Island’s history and heritage, which is also what tourists want to hear and learn about.”

The Chilean perspective of the issue of social sustainability of Easter Island is influenced by the knowledge of other indigenous groups and issues.

“I believe that for many years the views of indigenous peoples in Chile has not been taken into account, but I think that on the island they do not have a commercial wealth that is exploited by companies, so it has been pretty well natured, but for example with other ethnic groups such as the Mapuche, almost have no participation in the decisions of Government or companies that occupy their lands.”

Lastly, the tour agency offers how they promote social sustainability through their company by interaction of tourists with indigenous people.

Virtually all our guides (except for myself - I'm from Sweden, married to a Rapa Nui woman) are native Rapa Nui. This whole island lives and breathes oral traditions from the natives of this island. Is it simply part of daily life. As our guides usually are Rapa Nui (and if not, they have a strong connection with the local culture), they will have heard many stories from old times directly from elders. These stories are then transferred directly to our passengers.”


Discussion and Conclusion

The results of this study support viewpoints that both Marghescu (2005) and Colantonio (2007) make clear: the social aspect of sustainability is not as present in sustainable tourism research and practice. This can be seen in the newspaper analysis as well as the interviews. For the newspaper analysis, it is apparent that the indigenous are sometimes have their voices heard in Chilean newspapers but only 15.6 percent of the people quoted were indigenous. There are many factors that can contribute to this. For example, the Chilean newspapers have easier access to interview people in the Chilean government than in the indigenous population who are thousands of kilometers away. There is also a language barrier because not all Rapa Nui can speak Spanish. 

Woodcraft (2012) gave social sustainability indicators that can be applied to the results aforementioned in the literature review. In the category of “voice and influence,” the indicators for social sustainability included perception of the indigenous people to influence the local area, their involvement to tackle problems the existence of informal groups to make views known, and responsiveness of local government to the local issues. After compiling the results, it can be seen that overall, the indigenous people have some say, but over time with the influence of the Chileans and other foreigners, they feel as though they have not been able to maintain their autonomy. They have a voice and impact at the local level, where they work as guides to share their culture and knowledge with tourists, but their input and contribution are not included in decision making at the national level. At this level, the decisions are mostly made by the Chilean governmental tourist agencies.

The category of “social and cultural life” included a sense of belonging and identity, relationships with social networks, the ways in which people of different backgrounds coexist, and quality of life and well-being. Overall, through the newspaper articles and perceptions of the stakeholders, the indigenous people have a well-known connection with their history, identity, and land. The problems arise with the remainder of the indicators. The quality of life is impacted negatively due to the social and environmental issues. Coexisting with the continentals, Chileans from the mainland, is a hostile topic, and the possibility of assimilation weakens these indicators for social sustainability.

With these results, it is important to look at accepted rights for indigenous populations and the advocacy for indigenous moving into the future. The United Nations voted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, with only 4 opposing votes that were reversed by 2010.  This makes the declaration a universal recommendation, although not legally binding (Graham and Wiessner 2011). Within the resolution, the rights of indigenous people are include self-determination, autonomy and self-government, the ability to maintain their institutions while retaining the right to fully participate in the institutions of the State, and the right to revitalize their culture, including archaeological and historical sites (U.N. General Assembly 2007). From the results of the interviews and the lack of the indigenous people to control their cultural lands, these guidelines are not being followed in Easter Island by the Chilean government. An implementation of these recommendations and rights for the Rapa Nui should be taken into consideration to reduce friction and conflict, allowing for empowerment.

With the aforementioned rights, the culture will be able to thrive and remain authentic. When traveling to Easter Island, the tourists that I interviewed were aware of the indigenous people because they were involved in the tourism industry at the local level as guides and other service providers. The knowledge of the Rapa Nui upon arrival may be very limited and with the complete extinction in the past, many distant observers may not realize that Rapa Nui still remain on the island. This has occurred with other sacred sites that are large tourist attractions. Machu Picchu is perceived as only archaeology and was even portrayed in an advertisement with text reading, “Susan went to Peru for the People. Specifically, the ones that have been dead for 500 years”. In reality, the Quechua people still live in the highlands of Peru and have a surviving culture but are not able to access their ancient lands because of the tourism industry (Johnston 2000). Without cultural and indigenous influence in the tourism industry, tourists are completely ignorant to the history and influence of the people. If conflict and control by Chile continues, the disappearance of the Rapa Nui culture and exclusion from tourism is a sad possibility.

Tourism can be a tool for development and the potential that Easter Island has to be a tourist destination is evident. A tourist states this very well in their interview:

“My four-day trip to Isla de Pascua was the most amazing experience of my study abroad trip to Chile. I was able to see the famous Moai heads, swim in some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, scuba dive to see the beautiful species of fish the Island holds, see a volcanic crater now flourishing with plant life, horseback ride to the tallest point on the island, and have meaningful interactions and time spent with people who live on the Island.”

This potential can be utilized effectively by creating awareness and more academic knowledge of the topic of social sustainability. It is important to realize that even small islands are important and have something that they can offer the world. The empowerment of these indigenous people will create a more just society that will help foster other areas of life to succeed and make it easier to tackle problems such as environmental sustainability and political decision making. Through the newspapers and interviews, it can be inferred that the stakeholders in this society have a collective responsibility to work for more sustainable tourism to preserve not only the environment but also the culture and dignity of the Rapa Nui.


Stephanie Hess is a senior at Miami University in Ohio, studying International Studies and Geography. She is also a member of the Sigma Iota Rho International Relations Honors Society. This research was conducted for her senior seminar project. 

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