Travel Agent / October 20, 2005
By Larry Luxner
Despite political unrest that has given Ecuador seven presidents since 1996 and a well-deserved reputation for instability and corruption, tourists continue flocking to this Colorado-sized country — eager to see everything from Galápagos tortoises and indigenous markets to Andean mountain peaks and Amazon rainforests.
This year, 900,000 foreigners will flood the nation, up from the 792,000 who came in 2004. Overseas visitors stay an average seven days and spend $650 (not including airfare) during their stay, though that figure jumps to around $3,000 for the 80,000 or so tourists who also take in the Galápagos Islands.
"We are looking more for quality than quantity," said Patricio Tamaríz Dueńas. "We need responsible travelers to come to Ecuador, and what we want to show them is authenticity."
Tamaríz is executive director of Ecuador's Fondo Mixto de Promoción Turistica del Ecuador, a public-private entity that oversees the country's tourism promotion efforts.
He said tourism generated $430 million last year, "but we believe we can reach $1.1 billion by the end of 2007 or the beginning of 2008."
To that end, Ecuador is spending $8.8 million on a new U.S. promotion campaign aimed at promoting the country's "four worlds" — the Pacific coast, the Amazon, the Andes mountains and the Galápagos Islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 625 miles due west of the mainland.
"The Galápagos offer has always overshadowed Ecuador's tourism promotion efforts," Tamaríz said. "Overseas, some people think the Galápagos is a separate country, or that it belongs to Peru, because all the tourist packages combine Machu Picchu and the Galápagos. We know it's our hook, but the islands can only handle a maximum of 120,000 people per year, and we're already getting 80,000."
Tamaríz was interviewed during last month's Feria Internacional de Turismo (FITE), a semi-annual event in Guayaquil, Ecuador's financial capital and biggest city.
According to FITE President Jaime Rull, this year's event cost $440,000 and generated $10 million in business among hotels, tour operators and others.
Some 256 state-owned and private companies exhibited their products and services at FITE, which was visited by 375 foreign investors and 1,656 tourism professionals.
During the three days FITE was open to the public, around 75,000 people visited the show, which also attracted 777 journalists. Some 40 countries had stands at the exhibit, the largest delegation being from neighboring Colombia; also present were exhibitors from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Israel, Morocco, South Korea, Thailand and 30 other countries.
"This event is very good for raising tourism awareness among Ecuadorians," he said, noting that of last year's 792,000 tourist arrivals, around 200,000 came from neighboring Colombia, followed by the United States (174,000), Peru (90,000), Great Britain (21,400), Germany (21,300) and Spain (20,000). The rest came from other Latin American and European countries as well as Australia, Israel and the Far East.
"We've got three big fairs — BITE, a business-to-business fair in Cuenca, the Ecuador Tourism Fair in Quito, and FITE in Guayaquil," said Tamaríz. "My dream is that all three of these merge into one huge fair once every two years."
Tamaríz said the Fondo Mixto gets its revenues from a $5 tax on every airline ticket sold in Ecuador, as well as a 0.1% capital assets tax paid by hotels and other tourism businesses. In addition, Ecuador's Ministry of Tourism provides some revenues.
"Because of the change of governments, basically we don't know what's going to happen with the money situation, but it doesn't matter because we're still getting fed by the tickets and the tax," he explained. "Our new minister of tourism, María Isabel Salvador, is working hard inside the cabinet to double the budget for next year to around $14 million."
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 (25 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 less than four hours' flying time from Miami.
"Next year, we expect to have sufficient funds for a big consumer push. Our goal for 2007 is to generate at least as much money from tourism as from bananas," Tamaríz said, adding that "the good thing about the fund is that regardless of our political situation, the fund keeps on going."
Also expected to encourage tourism is construction of a new international airport for Quito, Ecuador's capital city. The current Mariscal Sucre International Airport is hemmed in on all sides by urban development and cannot grow.
In September, financing was approved for the $420 million project, which envisions a new airport to be built 18 kilometers east of Quito, on a 1,500-hectare tract of land (the current airport sits on 150 hectares). The project is a joint venture between Canada's ADC, Brazil's Andrade Gutierrez Concessőes, Houston Airport System Development Corp. and local construction firm AECON.
The new airport will boast a 3,800-meter runway and be able to handle 4.3 million passengers a year by 2010 and 5.5 million by 2020, compared to the current airport, which handles 2.8 million passengers annually.