Why Chile’s Route of Parks will be a ‘game changer for tourism’
The pioneering conservationist behind the world’s most ambitious rewilding project has revealed “game-changing” plans that could transform tourism in Chilean Patagonia.
After 25 years of strategic land acquisition by Kristine Tompkins and her late husband Douglas – which led to the creation last year of five new national parks in southern Chile – Tompkins said the next challenge was to encourage 60 communities across the region to develop tourism ventures that will help protect the biodiversity on their doorstep.
Speaking in London at the European launch of the 1,700-mile Route of Parks, a marketing initiative encompassing 17 national parks throughout Patagonia, Tompkins said: “We want local people to have a sense of ownership and pride. They will become the first line of defence in conservation.”
While the main hubs of Chilean Patagonia – Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt, Balmaceda, and the Torres del Paine national park – already have well-established tourist infrastructure, Tompkins hopes communities across the region will see the Route of Parks as an opportunity to start tourism ventures for all budgets. “We want backpackers and people who can only afford to camp – we want an assortment of offers.”
A team from the foundation has already travelled around Patagonia visiting towns and villages to talk about the reason for the parks’ existence – to “throw the brake on the extinction crisis” by restoring the landscape to its natural state and where necessary reintroduce endangered species – and to encourage local people to establish tourist services that will create income for communities and contribute to the long-term preservation of wild habitat.
The Tompkins Foundation has developed trails and infrastructure in two of the five new parks, Parque Patagonia and Pumalín – the former has two small lodges, three campgrounds and a visitor centre; the latter has nine cabins and a network of campgrounds. But the aim is for communities to develop low-impact accommodation, guide and transport services, cultural tours and more around all the parks.
As a result, vast swaths of Patagonia such as the spectacular but overlooked Aysén region will become more accessible, taking the pressure off Torres del Paine, where the W trail is so busy in peak season that travellers have complained of overcrowding.
UK-based travel company Pura Aventura, which has been selling holidays to Patagonia for 20 years, said the work of the Tompkins Foundation was a game-changer for tourism. “From our point of view it’s very exciting that an organisation with the heft of Tompkins is opening this [region] up because it means an almost endless supply of extraordinary places become accessible in a way that’s not going to be harmful. It’s about being able to travel in good conscience,” said co-owner Thomas Power.
Starting in northern Patagonia, Route of Parks is an epic scenic highway taking in three existing routes: the Carretera Austral road between Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins, the central fjordlands (accessible by ferry only) and the End of the World route in the far south, ending at Cape Horn. The launch of the route – which is broken down into different itineraries on the website – follows the creation of five new national parks and the expansion of three others, all in Chilean Patagonia after the Tompkins Foundation handed over a million acres to the Chilean state – the largest private donation of land ever.
The handover was the culmination of 25 years of strategic land acquisition by Kristine and Douglas (who died in a kayaking accident in 2015), aimed at returning farmed land to its natural state and creating wildlife corridors. The Foundation also owns land in Argentina, where its flagship rewilding project is seeing species being reintroduced to the newly created Iberá national park in the north-west. In January, three jaguars will be introduced. In total the Tompkins’ philanthropic work amounts to $345m.
Tompkins said she was still shocked at the successful outcome of her and her husband’s vision which began in 1991 with the purchase of 200,000 acres at the toe of Reñihué Fjord in what is now Pumalín national park. “We made the outrageous proposal to create five parks and expand three more and I’m still dumbfounded that it reached its conclusion.”
As a result 91% of Chile’s protected land is in Patagonia.
Over the decades a multitude of rewilding projects have included removing 25,000 sheep and 500 miles of fencing in what is now Parque Patagonia, the recovery of endemic species including guanacos, Andean deer, and Darwin’s rhea and encouraging well-managed agriculture to serve as biophysical buffers.
To date the Foundation has helped protect 5.75 million hectares across Chile and Argentina. The next phase is ensuring its long-term protection by setting up Amigos de los Parques (Friends of the Parks), a scheme to encourage Chileans to feel a pride in their national parks system; a private-public fund to ensure the parks are properly maintained; and the establishment of the Route of Parks to promote the region locally, nationally and internationally.
Tompkins said she was conflicted when it came to tourism. She believes it can be a force for good where it contributes to the restoration of nature, but should be managed with stricter controls. “Tourism is by nature skimming the cream off the natural and cultural top. [Visitors] need to leave more behind than just paying for a dinner. Personally, I think there should be more tourism taxes. And then the government has to know how to use that money.”
Looking back over 25 years of philanthropic work, she said her proudest achievement was the creation of Kawésqar national park, a vast region of mountains, forests, glaciers, fjords, lakes, wetlands and valleys of the west coast. The Tompkinses owned 28,000 hectares of it and used it as leverage to persuade the state to give 4 million hectares to form the second-largest national park in Chile (after Bernardo O’Higgins). About 26,000sq km of surrounding water is also protected.
Future conservation work will focus on areas where land meets sea with the aim of winning protection for marine areas. Ever ambitious, Tompkins is going for the highest level of protection there is: “We are trying to get waters established as no-take zones.”
Alongside the continued conservation work across the region, Tompkins said she wanted to position the foundation as a supporter of the youth climate activism movement, both financially and in terms of direct involvement. “I personally want to be involved and I want my teams to be involved. We should be joining the marches. If there is no march in an area where we work, we should help support one.
“I listened to Greta’s speech at the United Nations summit and I can’t remember feeling this way in over 30 years. It’s brilliant. I have zero faith in governments but I see hope in the work we do and in Greta and her pals. We have to join them [young people]. If we have any moral compass this is the time and I will be there.”