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In midst of political chaos, Ecuador hosts tourism fair
Travel Agent / May 9, 2005

By Larry Luxner

CUENCA, Ecuador — As protesters staged massive demonstrations in Quito and Ecuador's two international airports were closed to prevent the escape of ex-President Lucio Gutiérrez and his cronies, tourism officials went ahead with an annual fair aimed at luring U.S. and European visitors to Ecuador.

It could hardly have been worse timing. The keynote speaker at the Bolsa Internacional de Turismo del Ecuador (BITE), held Apr. 20-22 in the colonial city of Cuenca, was to have been Tourism Minister Gladys Eljuri. But with the removal of Gutiérrez from office following months of protests, Eljuri suddenly found herself without a job ñ along with the rest of the former president's cabinet.

Nevertheless, BITE officials tried to put their best face on the situation, noting that the event attracted 120 Ecuadorean exhibitors and more than 100 overseas travel agents, tour operators, wholesalers and journalists from Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the United States and half a dozen other countries.

"Definitely the events of the past few days will generate a negative international image of Ecuador," said Juan Pablo Vintimilla, president of BITE. "The news may deter U.S. and European tourists from coming, but as you can see, the people protested peacefully."

BITE, aimed at showcasing Ecuador's geographic, biological and cultural diversity, featured Andean musicians, indigenous women in their traditional colorful dress and weavers of Ecuador's famous Panama hats. Participating entities ranged from Quito-based Metropolitan Touring to Continental Airlines, which recently added nonstop service from New York's JFK to Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city.

Also on hand were Oro Verde, Ecuador's most important hotel chain, several domestic airlines including TAME and Icaro, and at least eight stands representing Quito, Cuenca, the Galapagos Islands and other regions trying to promote themselves to foreign visitors.

Among Ecuador's unique attractions: it is the only South American country that has adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency, making transactions easy for Americans. It is also in the same time zone as Chicago, visas are not required and prices are extremely low (10 cents a minute for calls to the United States at public telephones, and fares of $1-2 for most local taxi rides).

Furthermore, the country's location on the Equator and its mountains give it an unusually high degree of diversity, enabling tourists to experience an incredible variety of climates, landscapes and cultures all in a country roughly the size of Colorado.

"We are looking more for quality than quantity,î said top tourism official Patricio Tamariz. "We need responsible travelers to come to Ecuador, and what we want to show them is authenticity."

Tamariz, executive director of the Fondo Mixto de Promocion Turistica del Ecuador, said that last year, 792,000 tourists visited Ecuador, of which 170,000 or so were Americans. Tourism, generating $435 million a year, is now the country's third-largest source of foreign exchange after petroleum and bananas.

Tamariz said the average tourist spends $600 and stays 7-8 days. That excludes tourists visiting the Galapagos Islands, considered Ecuador's most popular yet by far its most expensive destination.

In order to promote both the Galapagos and Ecuador's lesser-known attractions ñ such as its Amazon jungle, snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano, Inca ruins and colonial cities ñ the country will soon embark on a $9 million advertising campaign. About $1.7 million of that is to be spent on the U.S. market.

Those promotional efforts include a 10-week TV advertising campaign on CNN International and CNN en Espanol, which will consist of 60-second spots during the first five weeks and two different 30-second spots in the second five weeks.

Tamariz said his agency will also launch a program for travel agents, including a sales guide and educational tools to help travel agents learn how to sell Ecuador and become specialists in the country.

"Our target market is the accessible adventurer. There's a huge population of Americans who have visited exotic destinations in the last three years," he said, noting that Ecuador's main competitor is Peru, which has twice the travel promotion budget.

As part of this effort "to create a positive image of Ecuador in the mind of the American consumer," Tamariz said his agency will place advertisements in such magazines as National Geographic Adventurer, Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as mainstream newspapers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald. One of Ecuador's challenges is to increase the number of tourists while limiting their impact on the environment, especially with regard to the fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos. At present, some 70,000 tourists a year visit the Pacific island chain, located 970 kilometers west of the Ecuadorean mainland. "We want to stop relying on a single destination that has been the icon of our tourism industry. We also want to promote the Amazon and Andean regions too," said Sebastian Cornejo, president of the Ecuador Chamber of Tourism. "Regretfully, these other attractions have not been promoted very well."

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