City at world's end bursts with tourists

But the tourism and construction boom has led to a chaotic surge of migrant workers, swelling its population by 30% in six years to nearly 60 000.

Limited space, government red tape and poor planning have forced some newcomers to occupy state lands, shivering their way through a bitter winter in makeshift huts. Some encroach on woodlands, raising environmental red flags.

“Tourism has created lots of jobs, but it has also brought housing problems, a crisis for the town’s only hospital, and education troubles. These are all problems related to progress,” said Ruben Dominguez (38), a migrant from central Argentina.

Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WHY-ah) is squeezed between a pristine bay and the snow-capped Andes mountains in southern Patagonia, about 3 000km south of Buenos Aires.

It overlooks the Beagle Channel, made famous by Charles Darwin’s South American explorations.

The city’s growth is limited by geography.
Lenga trees act as a climate buffer at the mountains’ base and peat bogs surround the city. The government is slow to grant land titles, so rambling neighbourhoods develop without official planning.

The area was first settled by Anglican missionaries in the 19th century, and an Argentine prison dominated Ushuaia in the early 1900s. A new wave of migrants arrived in the 1980s after the penitentiary closed and when tax breaks drew electronics and appliance factories to town.

Tourism is the new magnet.

Both the Sheraton and Hilton chains are planning hotels; a shopping centre and sports complex are in the works; and houses are being built to shelter about 3 500 families on a government waiting list.

About 350 cruise ships a year sail to the Antarctic from Ushuaia, up from 15 vessels ten years ago. And tourism accounts for a quarter of the city’s gross earnings, according to the Ushuaia Chamber of Tourism.

Salaries are relatively high, and many residents have talked friends and family members from their hometowns in to joining them in what has been called Argentina’s “city at the end of the world”.

“When people return from vacation, we have a big influx of new residents in the province who we have to tend to. This is very hard work and it has not stabilised,” said Hugo Coccaro, governor of Tierra del Fuego, the province of which Ushuaia is the capital.

Topsy-turvy growth

Ushuaia’s growing pains could harm the environment that lures tourists, most of them European, to marvel at its striking natural setting.

Well-organised squatters’ settlements are sprouting up all around the city. In one community, known as “the hidden place”, people live in plastic-insulated shacks on lands they’ve cleared in the middle of the woods.

“The woods play a very important role in a community like ours by containing rains and mudslides ... but Ushuaia was built by migrants and we must be inclusive with these people,” said Hector Stefani, secretary of the municipal government.

One problem is that available lands are scarce. But another is that homeowners who once rented rooms to workers now cater to tourists, so rentals are fewer and prices are dearer.

Historically, the government has extended power lines, water and sewage services to areas where pioneers had already settled.

In a squatters’ settlement known as La Bolsita, about 60 families—including 140 children—demand city services and titles to the lands they have occupied.

“Government officials don’t want Ushuaia to grow but they are losing their grip, because the city keeps growing anyway,” said Fabricio Osuna (34), a neighbourhood leader.

This chaotic growth is both unattractive and potentially damaging, Stefani said, adding that government officials must decide which areas are worth protecting.

“Many people are coming here to work in hotels, transportation, as guides and in travel agencies,” said Miguel Ramirez, president of the tourism chamber. “But the magic of tourism, if it’s not sustainable or planned, can end up hurting the preservation of our natural resources.”—Reuters

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