The first question from friends and business colleagues last winter when I mentioned my newest trip destination was, “Why Ecuador?”
This little quiet country in South America is the size of Colorado, and may not be on most peoples’ “must visit” list, but the people of feisty Ecuador have grand plans for their small nation. They’ve been working diligently over the past decade to make it one of the world’s top tourist destinations.
This month, it launched its first international tourism campaign at a cost of $183 million dollars. In fully recognizing this country’s lack of presence on the world’s stage, its Vice Minister of Tourism, Patricio Tamariz proudly says, ” It’s an advantage most people have not thought of us. It gives us an opportunity to create our own image.”
Tamariz, grew up in the U.S. but after returning to his native Ecuador, he discovered the rich history of his ancestors, which spans thousands of years, inspiring him to write a book, “Secrets of Paradise’ sold on Amazon.com. In it, he details Ecuador’s ancient history of medicinal herbs, the discovery of chocolate, the historic quests of the Conquistadors, who he claims really discovered the Americas, among other historical accounts. Tamariz says understanding his country’s historical context is key to its promising future.
As such, Ecuador’s new tourism initiative is aimed, not only externally, but also internally, encouraging those who live there to embrace the importance and benefits of living in harmony with nature, which is a vital part of Ecuador’s “Buen Vivir” (Good Living) campaign.
Prior to my trip, other than knowing there is an Ecuadorian consulate in New Haven, I knew very little about the country and have to confess I just happened to be looking for a new location for a warm winter break this past January. It was a good decision. While our stay was much too short, we soon discovered that Ecuador is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, offering volcanoes, the Andes Mountains, the Amazon, the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands and, of course, the equator.
Currently, Ecuador’s chief economic engines are: 1) Oil, 2) Bananas, 3) Shrimp and 4) Tourism. However, Ecuador is determined to make tourism the country’s #1 economic engine in the years ahead.
Much deliberate planning has gone into developing the tourism industry in Ecuador, according to Tamariz, “Tourism will provide us with the most strategic return on our investment. We have spent billions of dollars on highways to build the best network of highways in the region, as well as a state of the art airport.” With the U.S. dollar as its currency, Tamariz adds, “We have everything to become a tourism powerhouse.”
The country’s Minsterio de Tourismo and its consultants have created a tourism economic plan that is built on five basic pillars 1) Security 2) Quality 3)Excellence 4) Connectivity and 5) Promotion.
Ecuador seems to be just as calculated in the execution of its tourism development blueprint as it was in its planning, using its current assets to attract tourism. One of their incentives to encourage more flights from different countries is to offer a 40% discount on jet fuel for three years. With the biggest oil refinery on the Pacific Coast, few countries can compete with them in this area.
Its other assets are also impressive. The nation’s capital, Quito, is the first city ever to be designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Located in a valley of the Andes Mountains, it is on the equator and offers breathtaking panoramic views and some of the best preserved colonial architecture in South America. The average temperature is a comfortable 68 degrees. The city is over 9,000 feet above sea level, which can bring on a case of altitude sickness–easily remedied with Coca tea.
For many travelers, it offers yet another surprise: affordability. Quality hotels can be found near attractions for $100 per night. Dining is another treat; at the well-known Achiote restaurant, which offers typical Ecuadorean cuisine, or at the trendy seafood dining spot Segundo Muelle in Quito, an elegant dinner costs an average of $25.
A tour of the countryside offers many sights as well as a look at how many of the people in this country continue traditions their ancestors practiced thousands of years before them – many native weavers for example still color their yarn with natural ingredients found nearby.
As you travel outside the city, it’s clear vestiges of third-world living conditions still exist. Tamariz addresses this saying that the more the economy grows, the more all Ecuadorians will benefit, adding, “We know we have poverty, we are working to bring more of our citizens into the middle class, which continues to grow.”
The government is also working to engage the entire country in its plan to grow the tourism industry. Television spots and billboards, encouraging Ecuadorians to protect their country and keep it clean and beautiful are plentiful. The underlying message to Ecuadorians is that they too must be part of the effort to increase tourism. Ecuador is the best “green” destination in the world says Tamariz, and this also applies to social fabric, like rain “Everyone gets wet.”
The most intriguing example we witnessed of this internal push to engage its residents, were three middle school girls who approached us in Quito’s tourist district. Their school assignment was to interview tourists in English so they could practice their English skills and learn what others thought of their country. A sign that Ecuador is counting on all of its residents to help charm the world.
Editor’s note: For travelers who have more time than we did, we recommend the pacific coast city of Quayaquil, the second largest in the country, the nearby quaint city of Cuenca, and a jungle tour of the Amazon are among the must stops, as are the incredible Galapagos Islands, where Puerto Ayora a small town in Santa Cruz offers galleries, beautiful hotels, restaurants and tours that allow you to experience the natural beauty of this unique archipelago. To visit the official site of Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism site: www.ecuadortravel.com
A Photo Gallery of some memorable moments.