Chile’s tourism industry is a lot poorer by “Eat the Rich,” graffiti on a wall that's an emblem of escalating protests. So are tourists who are canceling or not booking a destination that has such a rich and diverse range of attractions.
Written in large letters on the wall in front of the upmarket Cumbres hotel in central Santiago is the simple message: “Eat the Rich.” In English, just in case the guests were in any doubt.
On Friday evening, masked youths ran past, escaping the water cannons and tear gas on the main street as Chile entered a third week of civil unrest over the rising cost of living and quality of social services. Some people had makeshift shields to protect themselves from pellets fired by police, while overhead a helicopter trained a searchlight on protesters.
Set back from the street with its main windows boarded over, Cumbres, like other hotels across the city, was trying to offer clients a normal service amid the chaos. More than two weeks of often violent protests has seriously damaged the image of a country that President Sebastian Pinera described as an “oasis” of calm in Latin America just one month ago. The demonstrations are so bad they forced the government to cancel two global conferences in Santiago that would have attracted tens of thousands of visitors.
“Every single booking I had for October was canceled and I don’t hold out much hope for November,” said Gary James, who owns the upmarket tour company Sense Chile. “And it’s not going to end any time soon.”
Chile’s Red Cross has estimated the total number of injured from the protests at more than 2,500, while the Chamber of Commerce has said 384 supermarkets were ransacked, more than a quarter of the total in the country.
Hotel and tour groups have seen 40 percent of reservations for this spring and summer canceled in the past few weeks as the violence mounted, according to the Federation of Tourism Companies.
“In all my years in the industry, I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Helen Kouyoumdjian, executive vice-president of the federation. “And this is still in development. We don’t know what is going to happen.”
The Principado de Asturias hotel in Santiago was attacked, the lobby destroyed, its windows smashed and guests forced to flee early on in the protests. Later the Mercure hotel in the center of the city was ransacked, and then badly damaged by fire.
A study by the Santiago Chamber of Commerce showed spending on tourism using credit and debit cards slumped 36 percent between October 18 and October 27.
The cancellation of the United Nation’s climate change conference and this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Santiago will cost the tourism sector $25 million, according to the tourism federation.
The Plaza Italia square in downtown Santiago is now the scene of near permanent protests, the equestrian statue at its center a mass of flag-waving demonstrators.
By Monday afternoon, police attempts to keep the square open had failed and thousands of people once again blocked traffic through the center.
Friday’s protest had attracted at least 10,000 people, spilling over into the adjacent streets where the police waited with water cannons. Small barricades smoldered away, sending wafts of smoke through the crowd that occasionally mingled with tear gas. The traffic lights in the nearby streets were all out.
And yet for all the violence and the graffiti, the atmosphere around the Cumbres hotel on Friday was more uncomfortable than it was threatening. A couple sat eating in front of the large plate-glass window of an upmarket restaurant, watching the demonstrators running past.
Street sellers hawked books and jewelry from sheets laid out on the pavement, seemingly oblivious to the tensions building nearby. Couples lounged in the park down the road.
Still, it’s a side to the protests that foreigners are unlikely to see on their television screens.
“People are sitting down in Europe now to plan their holidays eight to 12 months in advance,” James said. “They won’t be booking Chile.”
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Photo credit: A policeman battling with protests in Santiago. Bloomberg