My wife and I recently returned from a vacation in Ecuador, a country that is aggressively attempting to position itself as an international tourism destination. It has much going in its favor, not the least of which are the country’s distinctive natural beauty, its remarkably friendly people, the U.S dollar as its official currency, and the fact that a non-stop flight from Miami to Guayaquil takes only 4 hours and 20 minutes and costs only about $500.00.
The country’s major economic strengths are oil (currently in a depressed market), agriculture (it is the world’s largest producer of bananas, but is also a major producer of cocoa, corn, sugar cane and coffee, among other crops), flowers (it is the world’s third largest producer of cut flowers and poised to become the world’s largest producer of roses), and eco-tourism (from the Galapagos Islands to the Amazon Basin.)
Over the course of nearly three weeks, we spent time visiting several of the country’s national parks, exploring the coastal region (still recovering from the deadly earthquake of April 2016), driving through the Andes Mountains to the capital city of Quito, visiting the cloud forest near Mindo, reaching 15,000 ft. elevations in the volcanic region around Cayambe, gaining an appreciation for the cultural heritage of Quito itself, and spending a “Bucket List” week communing with endemic and endangered species in the Galapagos Islands.
Wherever we roamed, everybody seemed to be searching for that magic bullet that would turn Ecuador into one of the world’s leading tourism destinations. What everyone also seemed to recognize was that the country was caught in a Catch-22 scenario, where it needed tourism dollars to help to develop its infrastructure (in fact, there is currently a 2% national sales tax surcharge that is designated toward earthquake recovery efforts) but it also needed to have an improved infrastructure in place in order to attract international tourists. Not coincidentally, I saw my first television commercial to promote tourism in Ecuador on CNN just last week, following up on the $3.8 million that it spent to advertise in the Super Bowl back in 2015.
What I consistently witnessed were grassroots groups of local businesses, banding together to formulate plans where there is strength in numbers and where “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I could not help but think of the strengths within campground associations, tourism offices and chambers of commerce that are all too often taken for granted by both their members and those who choose not to be involved.
The infrastructural challenges in Ecuador are significant to say the least. Tourism-related businesses need to embrace the English language at a faster pace, and the highway system, GPS navigation, and driving are all absolute nightmares. (Ask me to tell you our story about being stopped at a police roadblock and being forced to pay a bribe in order to proceed!) Over the course of driving some 1,000 kilometers, it is no surprise that we did not encounter a single RV or a single campground, although we easily encountered 1,000 speed bumps. On the other hand, what campground owner, RV dealer, or camper here in the United States would not be ecstatic to see a government-regulated price of regular gasoline at $1.480 per gallon? (Yes, per gallon, not per liter!)
Countries like Ecuador are on the rise in the growth of their tourism industries, and tourism should always be viewed in a small world perspective, lest we find ourselves resting on our laurels and suddenly left behind in the dust. It is a fact that fully half of the country’s tourism dollars are currently spent in the Galapagos Islands; however, the rest of the country is actively seeking growth in its regional market shares, where there is nowhere to go but up. Perhaps the single greatest strength is the dedication and resourcefulness of its people, and the extraordinary efforts that they are willing to put into customer service.
In the end, it is those differences in customer service that will separate business winners from losers, both locally and on an international scale.
This post was written by Peter Pelland