Stepping off the plane, tourists are welcomed to Easter Island with a garland of flowers. They find themselves on a tiny dot in the Pacific Ocean, 3,700 kilometres west of Chile, to which the island belongs, and 2,000 kilometres east of Pitcairn Island. All around are the white-flecked waves of the Pacific. “What perfect peace,” exclaimed Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer when he arrived in the mid-1950s.
He might not say so today. Some 70,000 visitors now arrive each year, up from just 14,000 in the mid-1990s. Apart from the island’s utter remoteness, what attracts the tourists are the moai, the mysterious giant stone statues erected by the ancestors of the indigenous Rapa Nui people. They are a testament to a complex society of up to 20,000 people that later shrank to a shadow as a result of calamitous environmental stress and deforestation, a cautionary tale narrated in Collapse, a book by Jared Diamond, a polymath at the University of California.