The influx of foreign tourists to Magallanes Region experienced a strong 36% expansion during 2003 according to the Chilean International Police and Migration Office statistics.
Foreign tourists entering by land through the Monte Aymond pass, the international airport of Punta Arenas and the Muelle Prat y Bahía Catalina port terminals in Punta Arenas totalled 81,827 compared to the 59,999 of 2002 which represents a 21.828 increase.
Similarly the number of Chileans entering Magallanes Region reached 99,504, 10,126 more than in 2002. However this figure does not discriminate between Magallanes residents and other region visitors.
Monte Aymond the main pass with Argentina remains open 24 hours, 365 days a year and according to the most recent statistics the number of daily visitors crossings averages 500 on each direction totalling a thousand. According to the Chilean Migration Office this coincides with the beginning of the summer vacation season.
Torres del Paine National Park, one of the area's main attractions also experienced a 22% jump in the number of visitors compared to 2002, attracting a total of 61,533.
However prospects for this year are not so clear given the strong depreciation of the US dollar according to Punta Arenas tourist operators. "We're reaching a dangerous limit since some companies are cancelling tours and local ones have ceased contracting. When hotel and other rates were fixed the US dollar was equivalent to 650 pesos, now it's down to 550 pesos which means a loss of 100 pesos per dollar. Maybe more tourists but with less money to spend", said Jorge Norambuena, president of the Magallanes Association of Tourist Companies.
Bernardo Troncoso, the Chilean central government Finance Ministry regional representative admits that a strong Chilean peso is punishing local exporters who sell in US dollars. But he also emphasized that overseas sales from the region have strongly diversified during the last decade which "overall helps to absorb the impact", besides the fact that Patagonian tourism attracts high income visitors.
Mr. Troncoso also pointed out that consumers are the main beneficiaries of a strong peso something which "can be appreciated in the increase of retail activity".
Jose Kusanovic who manages a local hostel said that some of his colleagues and other related services have kept prices in US dollars to honour the extensive international promotion undertaken during 2003. "We've had to give up a hundred pesos per dollar but the affluence of visitors has more than compensated. Our occupancy rate is above 78%, the highest we've had since we started back in 1992", stressed Mr. Kusanovic.
Wind storm closes Punta Arenas port
Punta Arenas two main jetties were closed and all small vessels operations cancelled because of the strong 85 miles gales that swept during most of Saturday.
In spite of the fact that early mid morning Saturday winds reached sixty miles in the Punta Arenas airport area, Lan Chile flights managed to operate normally and no schedules were cancelled.
In the surrounding areas of the city there were several blackouts but by five o'clock in the afternoon most services had been re-established.
Punta Arenas regional meteorological office warns that similar weather conditions with strong gales are expected to continue until mid week when the intensity of the wind will begin decreasing.