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Easter Island: even more difficult to get to?

Indigenous population considers limiting visitors and immigrants to one of Chile's top tourist destinations.

A view of "Moai" statues in Rano Raraku volcano, on Easter Island, Oct. 31, 2003. (Stringer/Reuters)

SANTIAGO, Chile — They are the face of Chilean guidebooks: giant statues made of volcanic rock scattered across Easter Island.

Constructed centuries ago, the figures are thought to represent ancestors or chiefs of the indigenous Polynesian population. It is their descendants who now inhabit the tiny triangular island nearly 2,000 miles off the Chilean coast.

But they're fed up with the hundreds of immigrants who keep flooding the island in search of fortune. These immigrants, they say, are destroying the ecosystem, taking their jobs and ruining the historical legacy of their ancestors.

And so they're fighting back in the hope of restricting residence on the island, known in the indigenous tongue as Rapa Nui.

With more than 4,000 people — about half non-natives, mostly Chileans — living on 62 square miles, the islanders feel they are already overpopulated. Waste disposal is becoming a serious problem, as trash keeps piling up and the litter spreads in proportion to its population.

The situation has become particularly acute in recent years after the opening of large hotel complexes and increasingly more airline flights to the island. The island, unaccustomed to violent crimes or homicides, is now also attracting petty crime, theft and drugs.

“The underlying problem is that there are too many immigrants bringing with them bad habits, or are fugitives, drug addicts or delinquents looking for opportunities for crime. A year ago I would leave my house unlocked. I can’t do that anymore,” said Cecilia Rapu, a native Rapanui, in a phone interview from the island.

It is believed the island was colonized by Polynesean immigrants around A.D. 300. Centuries later, the island community started building altars and figures sculpted out of volcanic rock called moais, groups of which represented a particular tribe. The hundreds of moais, which weigh between 14 and 80 tons and the tallest of which stands at 5 meters, are the island’s main tourist attraction.

The island got its Westernized name when a Dutch explorer arrived there on Easter Sunday of 1722. Chile colonized the island in 1888, and subsequent European expeditions made the island famous for its exotic moais. Regular tourism began with the construction of the airport in the early 1980s, but the real boom started in the 1990s, and by now, the island receives about 50,000 tourists a year that come in daily flights and cruise ships.

Easter Island was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1995.