For a millenia, the people living on Rapa Nui have had historical periods of plenty and periods of scarcity. This history shows in records left by the Moai, religion, and traditions. Given the tiny size and isolation of the island, positive and negative events can have a dramatic impact on the population managing to survive on 60 square miles of land sitting in an ocean over 1,000 miles from a neighbor.
We were among the early tourists to return to Rapa Nui since the island started lifting visitor restrictions several weeks ago. After a two year closure, the island’s tourism industry is returning. We found many shops, restaurants, and hotels still closed.
We soon recognized modern Rapa Nui had suffered a period of severe scarcity due to the pandemic. The recognition shook our thought of scarcity on the island as a distant, historical concept happening to a more primitive population with less connectivity to the external world.
During the pandemic, the Rapa Nui people’s way of living required fast and significant adaptation for survival. For many months at the start of the pandemic, planes and ships did not come to the island. These planes and ships are the only way the island receives food, goods, medicines, and supplies from the outside world. Tourists could no longer visit, and so many businesses geared towards tourism had to shutter, leaving more than a thousand (I’d guess about 20% of the population) unemployed.
The Rapa Nui inhabitants reduced their consumption to the essentials and focused on survival, as their ancestors had done centuries earlier. They planted gardens, cultivated farms, and fished. Cutoff from the outside world, the people relied on one another. They bartered food, traded skills, and shared knowledge. The government stopped many capital projects, putting available the money towards basic jobs and income to keep the out of work population productive, occupied, and sane. Our guide, who makes a living from tourism, said that having some job and some pay helped her mentally persevere through the difficulties of the two year closure.
It was an unexpected aspect of our visit, learning about how the Rapa Nui people dealt with the Covid pandemic. It brought to life the historical stories about how the people dealt with times of scarcity, disease, and other difficulty. It also put our own and less severe difficulties into perspective.
Here are pictures from our arrival at Rapa Nui and our place at Cabanas Christophe. We were the first guests in two years, and the owners turned back on the hospitable experience we’d read reviews about from 2020. Leis on arrival, breakfast every morning, and a necklace upon our departure. They even “rented” us a car, meaning they gave us the keys to one of their personal vehicles. No paperwork. No rules. Just handed it over with a verbal agreement on the daily cost to use it. When we flew out, they said to take the car to the airport when we were ready to leave. Park it, leave it unlocked with the key under the floor mat, and they’d pick it up later.