Ecuador's president outlines his vision for tourism

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Ecuador president Rafael Correa, left,  and Peter Greenberg ride down the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest for an episode of “The Royal Tour” on PBS.
Ecuador president Rafael Correa, left, and Peter Greenberg ride down the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest for an episode of “The Royal Tour” on PBS. Photo Credit: Peter Greenberg Worldwide
Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

In today's cover story, consumer travel editors and I take up the topic of why it is that travel-themed television so often fails to get traction. But there are exceptions, and one of them is the documentary series "The Royal Tour," in which CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg has as his tour guide a current head of state.

The series launched in 2002 with King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose title gave the Royal Tour its name. Subsequent destinations have included New Zealand, Jamaica, Peru, Mexico, Israel and, this week, in rolling premieres on PBS stations across the country, Ecuador.

The show has been credited with boosting tourism 4% to 8% in featured markets. And it has a long tail, since each show is played repeatedly over years in multiple markets.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll note that I have a collegial relationship with Greenberg; I am a correspondent on another of his PBS shows, "The Travel Detective," and I am a regular guest on his radio program. Perhaps our shared interest in not only the experiential side of travel but also its business and public affairs aspects fuels my interest in his TV travel productions.

But I'm not alone, and I think another reason "The Royal Tour" has reached its seventh installment is that politics adds an inherent level of tension to what could be categorized as a travelogue. And tension, as the consumer travel editors concluded, is an essential ingredient to successful programming.

Part of "The Royal Tour" format includes an introduction to the leader, featuring an interview interspersed with a newsreel-type overview of political or other drama in the country. In Mexico, it did not shy away from the impact of drug cartels, and in the current installment, it doesn't soft-peddle Ecuador president Rafael Correa's leftist, nationalist ideas that align him with leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro and the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

And Greenberg demonstrates his understanding that it's important to add a bit of tension to the tour itself, even if it's with a wink to viewers: In Ecuador, he and Correa swim with (nonaggressive) white-tip reef sharks in the Galapagos and (vegetarian) piranhas in the Amazon.

I interviewed Correa before the documentary's premiere in New York last week, and we had a far-ranging discussion on filming "The Royal Tour" as well as how national economics and politics affect tourism.

The following are excerpts from our conversation:

Ecuador president Rafael Correa and Peter Greenberg before a reception to celebrate the launch of “The Royal Tour: Ecuador.”
Ecuador president Rafael Correa and Peter Greenberg before a reception to celebrate the launch of “The Royal Tour: Ecuador.” Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

Arnie Weissmann: As a percentage of Ecuador's gross domestic product (GDP), where is tourism?

Rafael Correa: Less than 6% of the GDP. But we can easily reach 12% to 15%. Our goal is to have the tourism sector be the first, the most important source of revenue for the country, by 2025; more than oil exports, which currently are more or less 12%. Right now, we also export bananas, shrimp, flowers. And after that, tourism.

Weissmann: Is emphasis on tourism a reaction to the collapse of oil prices?

Correa: We can increase oil production, but improve tourism even more. In relative terms, oil production will be a smaller part of the GDP because of the growth of the tourist sector.

Why do we want tourism to be No. 1? There's no smoke, no pollution and not only does it create jobs but 67% of the people employed by the tourist sector are women. That's very important.

Weissmann: How do your political and economic policies support this goal?

Correa: We believe in justice. We believe in equality. We believe in freedom.

It is unpleasant for a visitor to come and see huge social inequalities. We have reduced poverty a lot and raised the standard of living. You won't see beggars on the streets, and this is very good for tourism.

I'm an economist. Our philosophy is, "We have societies with markets, but not a market society." In a market society, society is dominated by the market. In a society with markets, the society dominates the market.

Weissmann: Has that philosophy had an impact on foreign investment in Ecuador tourism?

Correa: Foreign investment is definitely more than welcome, but they have to follow the national rules, like any other country, like here in the States. But we have advantages, including tax incentives, for investment. Last year we received the most investment of any time during the last decade. And, of course, in addition to incentives, we have natural and man-made attractions, infrastructure, energy, human talent.

Weissmann: What might a tourist notice is different in the country as a result of your administration?

Correa: It is an absolutely different country. Before our government, we were among the three worst road systems in the region, but now we have the best road system. We have a new airport in Quito. We hold second place in total infrastructure, not only roads, but ports, airports, etc.

Weissmann: I was last in Ecuador in 2010. I was in Guayaquil, staying on the Malecon ...

Correa: Along the river walk?

Weissmann: Yes.

Correa: I didn't build the river walk. I don't like it. I used to live nearby. The old walk was beautiful; it was my favorite place. This new one reminds me of South Beach.

Weissmann: The people at my hotel told me it was OK to walk along the Malecon to the old city, and to walk around there, but to be careful about walking in other areas. I did go into the modern city, and people came up to me and warned me to put away my camera and be very careful. Has the security situation improved?

Correa: Historically, we were a very safe country. We have improved security a lot, and now we are one of the safest countries in the region. We have integrated security, including a 911 number you can call from anywhere. We have instituted transporte seguro, safe transportation, with state-of-the-art technology, so we can know in real time if something is happening inside a taxi, inside a bus.

Weissmann: Many countries have a hard time balancing protection of natural areas, which are attractive to tourists, and exploiting natural resources in other ways. You're an oil-producing nation, but you also have lots of environmentally sensitive areas, from the Galapagos to rain forest.

Correa: Our constitution is the first to give rights to nature. About 33% of our territory is under protection, The Galapagos is no longer on the Unesco list of sites whose heritage is in danger, as it was when I took office

Weissmann: You've criticized other countries and politicians even when, at the same time, you are trying to attract their visitors. Do you think American tourists might care about that?

Correa: No, not at all. On the contrary, I think they feel attracted, for instance, to Cuba, to see something absolutely different, a different way of thinking, a different political system, different economic system. I think this is an attraction for tourism.

There is some misunderstanding. I admire America. I spent some of the happiest years in my life, with my family there. (Correa attended the University of Illinois in Champaign for four years.)

We are a very nationalistic government, and that can be understood as being an anti-American government. That's not true. We love America, and I love American people. I think you are very hard-working, very honest people. For you, to lie is unnatural, and I like honesty.

So to me, the American people are outstanding people. America's a very successful country. But that doesn't mean that we will agree on everything. I think [American] foreign policy is sometimes a little bit wrong, especially toward Latin America.

And our system can be difficult for Americans to understand. You say you have a bipartisan system, but to me, it looks like only one political party. Inside my political movement, it is called Alianza PAIS, I can find more differences than between Republicans and Democrats.

That is difficult to understand for American people. In Latin America, we are still challenging the system. There are conflicts between systems, not inside a system.

So there is more political instability. Still, sometimes you need continuity of the government. Here in the States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four elections in a row, and I think without that, it would have been very difficult to solve the Depression and to begin the New Deal. In order to solve the problem, he needed several years, several terms. After that, you had a system that works almost by itself, and you can have different governments every term.

A government in Latin America is absolutely different. You have to look at our development level. When you are developed, you can have unlimited free trade, but at our development level, you have protectionism. It would be a huge mistake [for Ecuador] to try to repeat what [America is] doing now, when you are the most developed country in the world, the most successful country in human history. When I am in that situation, I myself will repeat "World free trade! Competiveness!" Because I am sure I will win.?

Weissmann: Had you spent much time as a tourist in your own country before filming "The Royal Tour"?

Correa: Since I was a young kid, I've loved to tour my country. There was a train from Guayaquil to Quito, and it was abandoned. When I came to office, one of my first tasks was to rescue this train, not for transportation but for tourism. [It is featured in "The Royal Tour."]

I had been to the Amazon before, but never on a riverboat, and I did that with Peter for the first time.

Ecuador is much more than the Galapagos Islands.

They're unique in the world, but we have everything: beaches, mountains, jungle. It's the only place you can find a snow-capped mountain at latitude zero. We have a chapel, right on the equator. You can get married in the Northern Hemisphere while your fiance stands in the Southern Hemisphere.

And Quito was the first city [in the Americas] to be declared a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site.

Weissmann: To film "The Royal Tour" requires a significant commitment of your time. How did it rise to become a priority?

Correa: Ecuador has huge tourist potential, and it is a very important product to advance promotion of our country. So you sleep a little less, you rest a little less, you have to fix your schedule because you have to continue to govern. But I enjoyed it a lot.

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