THE LIFE WE LOVE
TBY talks to Freddy Ehlers, Minister of Tourism, on the role of tourism in the country's socioeconomic development, MICE tourism, and the government's efforts to attract FDI.
What role does tourism play in the socioeconomic development of the country?
Ecuador offers a unique lifestyle model that is gathering worldwide recognition. In a time of economic contraction in many countries around the world, people are questioning the traditional economic model. French philosopher Edgar Morin recently declared Ecuador an alternative model of socioeconomic development in the world. Tourism obviously plays a key role in this development. Simon Bolívar declared that people from Latin America were a new race, for it is a continent with wide diversity in terms of culture and population, with the highest rate of biodiversity per capita in the world. For that reason, Ecuador has developed a new slogan; “Ecuador loves life!" It is a proposal for a new civilization, a new human age, in which love and the defense of life are the key elements of society. These ideals underline our tourism industry, as the country seeks to be an example to the world by developing a conscientious tourism. The World Tourism Organization (WTO) talks about three types of tourism: ethical, responsible, and sustainable. Conscious tourism brings together these three elements, but goes one step further in terms of loving life and becoming better human beings at both ends of the service chain. For example, the Ecuadorean people decided through a popular referendum that casinos have no place in a strong society, and therefore this is a casino-free country. For all these reasons, Quito will host the next WTO Congress on Ethical Tourism in September 2012, as well as a meeting of the ministers of tourism organized by the Organization of American States (OAS). The government of Ecuador aims to promote tourism as a key instrument for the development of the country, for we have a rich and wide touristic heritage that summarizes what Latin America is: the Brazilian jungles, the Peruvian and Chilean mountain ranges, Mexican and Guatemalan indigenous markets, the Caribbean coast, and, of course, the origin of the evolution of species; the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador and its tourism sector are already attracting worldwide interest. For example, investors from Qatar have already visited the country in order to implement large projects in Ecuador. Our country is aiming to develop a sustainable, ethical, responsible, and conscious tourism model.
How has the sector evolved over recent years?
Ecuador has only developed 15% of its tourism potential in the last few years; therefore, there is plenty left to be discovered. At the moment, we are building up a tourism brand that is attracting more interest throughout the world every day. Such a process has enabled us to experience important growth rates at a sustainable and responsible pace. We do not aim to grow for the sake of growing. For example, in the first quarter of 2012, tourism in Ecuador grew by 15%, whereas the rest of the world grew by 4.5% on average. For that reason, I believe Ecuador offers the best competitive advantages for foreign investors right now. Our country currently offers 12 touristic products such as cultural tourism, eco-tourism, sun and beach tourism, medical tourism, and even retirement tourism, which has grown considerably in the last few years, thanks partly to Ecuador being voted the best place to live in the world, in a poll carried out by International Living Magazine, security, health care accessibility, and the beautiful weather. In addition, the US Tour Operators Association (USTOA) ranked Ecuador as the third most important new destination to be discovered within the tourism sector. I would also like to say that there is still a long road ahead of us; we need to learn a lot in terms of training and capacity. However, I truly believe that the events we are hosting here in September 2012 will help us to take a step forward in these fields. Finally, I would also like to mention that we are promoting tourism agreements with our neighbors Colombia and Peru, as well as Cuba, to implement tourism routes involving all four countries.
What strategies is the Ministry implementing in order to attract FDI?
We personally invite private businessmen over here, so they can experience first-hand what Ecuador offers. Apart from Qatari investors, we have welcomed delegations from Singapore and other Middle Eastern countries. At the same time, we are inviting large international multinationals to come over and develop large projects in our rich territory. The Ministry of Tourism has increased its budget 10 fold in the last six to seven years, which proves the increasing international exposure of our country. We are aiming to conclude business agreements with airlines, large international businesses, and also anybody interested in investing in the tourism sector in Ecuador, which offers a high return over the medium to long term, and a great sector growth margin. Ecuador is a unique country in the world, and as one of our last campaign slogans remarks, we are the Best of South America.
Is Ecuador also looking into business and MICE tourism?
Definitely. This is a segment we are very interested in strengthening in the near future in our country. At the moment, two convention centers are being built in Quito and Guayaquil, and Ecuador is hosting a number of important conventions and conferences in 2012. As for business tourism, this is a segment that has considerably grown at the Latin American level, and as we keep attracting foreign investment into our country, this type of tourism will also continue grow. In fact, the business segment experienced the most important growth during the first quarter of 2012.
What's your general outlook for the tourism sector in 2012?
This is going to be a very important year for the tourism industry in Ecuador. There are private projects in the sector worth $600 million, and an airport project in Manta, which could become the most important transcontinental infrastructure in the region; an open door into the region for Asian countries. We are also developing the most spectacular journey by train—the Quito-Guayaquil route—that will be inaugurated at the end of 2012, and even boast a steam train like the Orient Express. Investment in this project is around $300 million. Our growth predictions for 2012 were around 7%-8%, and we closed the first quarter of the year with 15% growth, a prelude of the importance of 2012 for the sector. In terms of markets, we are focusing on increasing the number of visitors from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and especially Brazil, because at the moment there are no direct flights between the countries, and we are currently holding talks with different airlines to establish direct flights. This will also be an important year to open Asian markets for Ecuador.
© The Business Year - July 2012