"It's the magic of 'The End of the World,' " says Mayor Jorge Garramuño. "As a brand, it is very powerful."
Ushuaia, situated along the picturesque Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, amid a backdrop of jagged, snow-capped mountains, proclaims itself the world's southernmost city.
Chilean officials like to make the same assertion about the town of Puerto Williams, a military settlement slightly to the south, but Ushuaia is by comparison a metropolis, home to more than 55,000. Hotels, casinos and travel agencies have multiplied in recent years like the region's abundant, albeit nonnative, beavers.
Foreign vacationers, mostly from the United States and Europe, can't seem to get enough of this rugged and glamorous terrain at the tip of South America.
Nonstop flights from Buenos Aires touch down daily. Hundreds of cruise ships now anchor here during the relatively mild months between Christmas and Easter. The number of visitors to Ushuaia approached a quarter-million last year, double the total five years earlier.
"A lot of people are surprised when they arrive here because they think they are coming to a village where penguins are waddling on the streets and Indians are riding around in canoes," notes Garramuño, who arrived 27 years ago, when the city had less than one-fifth of today's population. "Instead they find a modern city."
Once marked on maps as Terra Incognita (Unknown Land), this is believed to be the last place on the globe that prehistoric humans reached by foot as the ice shelf retreated about 14,000 years ago.
Over the years, Ushuaia has served as an indigenous campsite, Anglican mission, prison colony and way station for corsairs, whalers, pirates and gold-diggers, among others. The indigenous peoples, convicts and shipwreck survivors are all gone, replaced by guidebook-toting, exotica-seeking sightseers in waterproof gear and hiking boots. Tourism pumps more than $120 million a year into the economy.
Amid the worldwide eco-awareness boom, Ushuaia has gained global traction as a base to visit receding glaciers, observe penguin and sea lion colonies, follow the path of Charles Darwin and even trek (with sunscreen) beneath the ozone hole, which occasionally extends above the city, though it can't be seen. Ushuaia is also the southern terminus of Patagonia, another tourist brand oozing cachet.
Another lure: The deep harbor is a major gateway to Antarctica, an increasingly hip destination for the environmentally inclined.
The almost honky-tonk ambience during high season takes some folks aback.
"I was expecting a desolate place at the End of the World," says James O'Sullivan, a New Yorker who visited this year. "But I got there and it was as jampacked as 42nd Street."
The helicopter-and-submarine-equipped yacht Octopus stopped by in February, bringing Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, and a multitude of crew, relatives and friends. Gates' associate Paul Allen, owner of the $200-million-plus Octopus, also was on board.
But the onslaught of world-end chic hasn't shattered the allure — not yet, anyway. Although some unsightly development mars the town, nearby parks and waterways offer access to a largely unspoiled landscape of inlets and moorlands, forests and bays.
"There's something here that touches the imagination," says Gotz Bernau, violinist and concert-master of the Berlin Symphonic orchestra, seated at a picture window in a pricey hillside hotel as cottony snowflakes fell on the pines outside. "This could be Sweden or Switzerland. But you know it's the End of the World."
The Berlin Symphonic was the big draw at Ushuaia's third International Festival, a classical music extravaganza that is the centerpiece of the city's aggressive attempt to push the tourist season into the gray and chilly autumn, when an early dusk beckons and the streets empty. The orchestra played to packed audiences at a hotel ballroom in a city that still lacks a proper concert hall.
"People in Europe even want to have their honeymoons here," says Margarita Uliarte, a festival promoter from Austria.