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Patagonia Scientific Tourism: An Emerging Trend at the End of the World
Photo by Linde Waidhofer
These are two of the primary attributes used around the world to describe Patagonia, a space known for its elusive geography, culture, and climate, located at the end of the world, where it sits cradled between the Antarctic, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Shared by Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is one of those special "must-know" places, like the Amazon or Nepal.
Within Patagonia, one of the most unique territories is Aysén: 110,000 km2 of forests, rivers, lakes, glaciers, and wild prairies. 83% of the territory is under the protection of the Chilean state and much of it is still untouched by human beings.
These conditions are the precise combination of factors that have attracted the attention of two activities that on the surface seemed opposed: tourism and science. In recent years, a special project has focused on developing "Scientific Tourism", blending science with tourism to create unique visitor experiences that add value.
ExplorAysén Society for Tourism and Scientific Research
Aysén has a wide variety of natural and cultural resources of interest to science and visitors. These include the second largest fresh water reserve on the planet, which is contained in the massive ice fields and glaciers of the Patagonian Ice Fields, the archeological richness of the vestiges of the "Tehuelche" indigenous groups, and the living history and culture that accompanies more recent groups of settlers.
A group of regional tour operators and local businesses are working to promote a more complete understanding of these, and other unique aspects of the region. They have formed the ExplorAysén Society for Tourism and Scientific Research, offering new programs for national and international travelers and scientists.
Fabien Bourlon, a geologist, is the Director of the Center for Scientific Tourism (CTCP), a sub-unit of the Center for Ecosystem Research in Patagonia (CIEP), based in Coyhaique, the regional capital of the Aysén Region of Chile. Bourlon explains that there are four types of "scientific tourism" to be developed in the Aysén region.
"First, exploration focused expeditions allow visitors to accompany researchers in the field, as they evaluate the potential for new scientific research in a given area", he says. "Second, field research experiences offer tourists the opportunity to work side-by side scientific groups conducting research in the diverse and pristine marine and terrestrial ecosystems of Patagonia."
"Eco-volunteering is a third alternative", says Bourlon. In this case, volunteers offer their time, ideas and professional support to an investigation or an ongoing project, such as a conservation program. Finally there are eco-cultural programs that include interpretative visits to places of special interest, under the leadership of scientists and research assistants.
Explorers of Aysén Program
Enrique Simpson was the Admiral who in 1870 began a systematic exploration of Aysén, which was considered forgotten territory within Chile. He was followed by the German geographer, Hans Steffen, in 1894, and much later, in 1932, by Augusto Grosse; both hired by the Chilean government to catalogue the resources of this rough territory. In 1959, Eric Shipton, a renowned climber in the Himalayas, turned his attention to Patagonia, exploring and climbing the Southern IceFields, and in 1968 the mountaineers Douglas Thompkins and Yvon Chouinard climbed Mount Fitz Roy, which sits on the southern border of Aysén in territory shared with Argentina.
The Explorers of Aysén Program, offered by ExplorAysen, allows visitors to retrace some of these historic expeditions while enjoying a combination of activities like hiking, sailing and horseback riding.
Aysén has a unique coastline made up of thousands of islands scattered in the Patagonian archipelago. The unique ecosystems of these southern channels support a wide diversity of marine habitat. The "Patagonian Marine Fauna Program” permits participants to monitor and identify populations of seals, dolphins and other species living in these remote and uncharted islands; traveling via sea-based excursions that combine traditional yachting and sailing with experiences in locally-crafted wooden vessels.
Little is known of the life of the original inhabitants of Aysén. In the effort to uncover this lost part of Aysenian history, ExplorAysen has developed an opportunity for visitors to help in survey work with the program, "Archaeology in the mountainous valleys and steppe of Aysén." This program offers a unique opportunity to join in the effort to reconstruct the sense of life of the nomadic indigenous peoples of this part of Patagonia.
Other expeditions include visits to observe Andean condors in their native habitat or to explore majestic glaciers with the support of specialized guides who can explain their unique contributions to the ecology of this region and the world. These, and more, are part of the travel options that local operators, applying the scientific tourism certification criteria developed by the Center for Scientific Tourism, are now actively promoting for Chilean and international travelers.
"Aysén has much to show the world. Through scientific tourism, we hope to help conserve this unique and mysterious wilderness area through the provision of a framework for local economic development that truly represents the criteria of sustainable development. What could be better than that?!", says Fabien Bourlon, with conviction.
Text By: Patricio Segura
Translation & Reviews By: Patricio Segura, Trace Gale and Fabien Bourlon