While the aftershocks of the 8.8-magnitude earthquake are expected to continue for up to a month, many in Chile's tourism industry are concerned that they'll feel the rumblings in their business for months to come. As a result, tourism officials are understandably anxious to spread the word that Chile is "open for business."
Despite warnings from the U.S. State Department to avoid any non-essential travel to Chile, local tour operators say the country is ready to welcome tourists. Tourism brings in about 3.5 percent of Chile's GDP, accounting for almost $10 billion in 2009.
The February 27 quake, which killed more than 800 people, was centered close to the city of Concepción, about 350 miles south of Santiago. In that area, which is well off the tourist trail, the situation remains chaotic, and travelers are wise to stay away.
Meanwhile, the country's top tourist destinations, from Patagonia in the south to the Atacama Desert in the far north, were buffered from major damage by hundreds of miles.
But news reports are portraying only one part of the country's situation, according to Patricio Ihnen, spokesman for Sheraton Hotels, which has six properties in Chile, five of which are operating at 100 percent. (The Four Points by Sheraton property in Los Ángeles, Chile, was close to the epicenter and is temporarily closed.)
"The majority of the images which are being shown on TV are from the epicenter, which is 350 miles from Santiago," Ihnen said. Where tourists want to travel, he added, Chile is safe and sound.
Mac Mitchell, of La Bicicleta Verde bike tours in Santiago, agrees. "In no way do I want to downplay the tragedy in Concepción and the coastal towns nearby," Mitchell said. "But the image the international press is giving and the travel warnings from the U.S. government are exaggerated and threaten to seriously hurt the travel industry here."
The country's leading eco-hoteliers, EXPLORA, also report that their operations in Atacama, Easter Island, and Patagonia are running smoothly.
"Our three destinations are hundreds of miles away from the epicenter of the earthquake and thankfully the magnitude of the quake was imperceptible in all three locations," the company said in a statement.
The biggest roadblock remains getting people in and out of Chile. The main hub is Santiago's Arturo Benitez Airport, which sustained structural damage to the customs and immigration area, according to the Ministry of Infrastructure. Tents have been put up on the tarmac to serve as a temporary terminal.
Ministry officials said 60 percent of national flights are operating, with the country's biggest airline, LAN, already back in limited business. Beginning March 5, international and domestic flights were able to land on a rotating schedule. Flights were arriving from Madrid, Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Paris and New York, among other cities.
Valparaiso's busy cruise ship port -- in the heart of its season -- is open, although parts of the older section and its adjacent market were damaged. After the quake, Princess Cruises postponed its departures for about three days to give extra time for some delayed passengers, but ships are now coming and going, the port authority reported.
Santiago itself was back in business within hours of the quake, with the local subway, communication, and electricity systems all running smoothly by the next morning.
In fact, this could be an excellent time to visit Chile since leaving your tourist dollars behind can help the country rebuild.
"The best way to help the people of Chile is to make sure that the world is correctly informed that Chile is open for business," said Brian Pearson of Santiago Adventures. "People should consider Chile very safe to visit once the Santiago airport is fully operational."
How To Help
These two Chile-based organizations work directly with Chileans in need; there are no middlemen clogging up the chain.
Un Techo Para Chile (www.untechoparachile.cl): Similar to Habitat for Humanity, this organization was started by university students doing social work. They gather Tetra packaging and process them into material to build pre-fabricated (and earthquake-resistant!) housing.
El Hogar de Cristo (www.hogardecristo.cl): Founded by San Alberto Hurtado in the 1960s, this organization works with homeless people. The group currently has schools as well as homes for street kids, orphans, and senior citizens.
Christie Pashby is co-author of Frommer's Chile and Frommer's Argentina, and is also author of Frommer's Banff and the Canadian Rockies Day by Day. Her website is www.patagonialiving.com.