Conservation and tourism: the Route of Parks of Chilean Patagonia

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 Yendegaia National Park. Photo: Tompkins ConservationYendegaia National Park. Photo: Tompkins Conservation

By Tomas Moggia
Translated by Brent Harlow
The most spectacular scenic route in the world. That categorical and ambitious epithet has been used to refer to the Route of Parks of Chilean Patagonia. And it probably is. There sure is plenty of variety: temperate rainforests, Patagonian steppes, ice fields, endless mountains, fjords, lakes, and glaciers are just part of the mosaic that provides colors, lights, and contrast to the 2,800-kilometer (1,740 miles) route that crosses the three regions at the southern end of Chile. From north to south, the parks route begins in Puerto Montt, and ends at Cape Horn, connecting 17 national parks and more than 60 neighboring communities. There are 11.5 million hectares (28.4 million acres) of protected land that are home to 140 species of birds and 46 species of mammals.
The campaign, supported by the governmental promotion arm, Imagen de Chile, is part of marketing strategy crafted by Tompkins Conservation Chile, building upon their donation of land for various parks last year to Chile. The aim is to not merely hand over protected areas for nature preservation, but also foster economic development, in which tourism becomes the engine for local economies as a consequence of conservation. 
“In Chile, we are still far from having an administrative superstructure for the national parks. All of our work aims at making the national parks more visible, and the way we make all citizens value them is by converting them into assets for the local economies. That way, these same people will defend and value them because they will mean a lot more to them,” says Carolina Morgado, executive director of Tompkins Conservation Chile.  
Alerce Andino National Park. Photo: Tompkins Conservation Alerce Andino National Park. Photo: Tompkins Conservation  
Similar to what has happened at Pumalín Park and the town of Chaitén, or with Torres del Paine National Park and nearby Puerto Natales, Morgado hopes that strong ties will be forged between the neighboring communities and the parks, and that the inhabitants themselves will become the first to defend the territory. “Before, people would just pass by the town, but as we kept on developing infrastructure in Pumalín, people also began to stay in Chaitén, and their community now sees the significance that it has in improving their quality of life,” she adds.
Also among their objectives: make Chile internationally recognized as a model of tourism based upon conservation. “We want to install in the collective imagination that Chile is not only about fruit, wine, and copper,” says Morgado. Indeed, Chile has become a world leader for its national parks and marine parks.  According to Chile’s national park service (Conaf), the country’s national protected areas system holds about 21 percent of the continental land area. The Patagonian Parks Route alone contains 91 percent of the aforementioned territory, and its protected under the designation of “national parks,” the highest category of protection that can be given to a specific area.
The campaign recently launched the web page, which pulls together all of the information about the park route, and presents suggestions for tours, tips on transportation and accommodations, and more than 50 trails mapped out with GPS and classified by the trails’ different difficulty levels, which can be downloaded. The site enables people to plan their travel in the region with reliable information, whether it be self-guided or through a tour operator.
The promotional strategy behind the Route of Parks of Chilean Patagonia goes hand-in-hand with other related initiatives that Tompkins Conservation Chile is working on, among them the new non-profit Corporación Amigos de los Parques de la Patagonia (Friends of the Patagonian Parks). Founded in order to “care for and place value on the national parks of Chilean Patagonia, inviting civil society to become involved in their protection," the aim of the organization is to generate a cultural shift in understanding, valuing, and appreciating the parks; to spur pride among Chileans for their national parks and inspire them to work together on protecting their country’s natural patrimony. “It is very important to get involved, to love and cherish our parks, to defend them and demand that they be better maintained. It all goes together,” says Morgado.
Torres del Paine National Park. Photo: Tompkins ConservationTorres del Paine National Park. Photo: Tompkins Conservation
Through a technical working group with Conaf, Tompkins Conservation Chile is also looking to make contributions based on their experience in developing the parks, with a focus on improving standards throughout the park system. In that regard, another aspect of their work is to raise private funds from international foundations to develop infrastructure in the Patagonian parks, especially given the current low budget the Chilean government currently has for its parks system. They are moreover studying the park management model of other countries — such as Costa Rica, Brazil and Bhutan —  to evaluate the best possible formula for the future of Chile’s parks.
Today, the new, global attention on Chile’s priceless natural wealth preserved in its Patagonian parks is raising awareness about the country’s urgent need to boost investment in its national parks system. After all, this is an asset that, more than ever, is sure to spur high growth in the tourism sector in the years ahead, benefiting not just Chilean travel companies but local economies. It’s all part and parcel of making Chile a leader in global conservation, with the Route of Parks in Chilean Patagonia as its standard bearer.