Tour ops: Chile, Ecuador, Peru among hot spots

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QUITO, Ecuador -- Travel industry officials who market and sell South America concurred that leisure traffic has increased significantly in the last year and the bookings outlook is good for 2004.

The demand for alternative foreign destinations, the up-scaling of the tourist infrastructure and a sense of safety for North Americans traveling south to the other America are the major reasons why travel to South American destinations is heating up, they said.

The forum for these assessments was the annual TravelMart LatinAmerica, the industry marketplace for Latin American travel products.

Among U.S. tour operator delegates, there was a general consensus that the South American "hot spots" are Ecuador, Peru, the Galapagos Islands, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

In addition, there was agreement that the strongest audience for South American vacations is the seasoned, well-educated traveler, and the biggest growth in bookings is coming from those who are willing to spend big dollars on customized itineraries.

An areawide face-lift has turned the Old City of Quito into a new beauty. "We are having the most amazing year, particularly with bookings that have jumped from $1,500 each to $15,000," said Caryn Maxim, president of Maxim Tours.

The operator, who launched Maxim Tours' Uncommon Tours Latin American program a decade ago with Argentina, finds that today her best-selling destination is Chile.

"We also have a welcome rise in bookings to Brazil, which is a frustrating country because it doesn't seem to realize the attractions it has or capitalize on the great destination it could be," she added.

According to Michele Shelburne, president of Ladatco Tours, "The strong trend in South American travel to one-country or one-region vacations is good for us all, opening the door to repeat business."

Shelburne said that family travel is another fast-rising market segment, particularly for family-friendly itineraries like a a Galapagos Islands cruise.

World Dimension's Jaime Alvarez, whose company specializes in destination management and marketing representation, is particularly bullish on the potential of travel to Brazil.

"While the points on a traditional tour are Rio, Iguassu Falls, Salvador de Bahia and Manaus, there's lots of work to be done in developing niche and special-interest markets," he said.

For his Brazil-based client, Blumar Tours, Alvarez is working to promote the country to the African-American market as well as developing both incentive business and adventure travel programs to such undiscovered locations as the wildlife zones of the Pantanal or the Chapada Diamantine region in the northeast.

While working with Lima Tours in Peru, World Dimension's focus is on designing new programs in and around the capital that add in visits to art galleries, private homes and nearby haciendas.

"It's simple to sell Machu Picchu, but a country with such historical, cultural and natural variety is [also] ripe for presenting alternative products," said Alvarez.

Ecuador, too, is ready to capitalize on its mainland attractions, developing more visitor traffic beyond Galapagos. A primary objective is to encourage longer stays in its two major gateways, Quito and Guayaquil, which have completed restoration and refurbishment projects.

According to tourism minister Hernan Plaza, both cities will be slated for primary attention under the government's marketing and promotion campaign for 2004, budgeted at $8 million, with 30% to 35% of that money to be spent in the U.S., Ecuador's primary market.

Extended stays in Quito should be an easy sell. The capital, celebrating its 25th anniversary as the first world capital to make the Unesco World Heritage Site list, is winding down a 10-year renewal program that has brought new life to its old city quarter.

Guayaquil, Ecuador's commercial center on the Pacific coast, has also been transformed, with restorations that include the historical Las Penas neighborhood.

Among other developments in Ecuador, two new hotels are now in business on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos: the Royal Palm, a superluxe getaway in the highlands, and the first-class Finch Bay Hotel, located a short taxi-boat ride from the main town of Puerto Ayora.

These two properties offer something new to this premier cruising destination: a land-based visit that will appeal mostly to pre- and post-cruise clients or cruise passengers for whom other shore excursions are too rigorous.

Set to enter the Galapagos cruise market next spring is the 32-passenger Evolution, which will join the yacht fleet of Quasar Nautica. For more information, visit www.quasarnautica.com.

More on Galapagos cruises: The word on the TravelMart exhibition floor was that Royal Caribbean will introduce a newly refitted, 100-passenger ship in the islands, to be called Sun Bay II.

When asked to comment, a company spokesman said, "Royal Caribbean does not respond to rumors pertaining to business transactions."

The next TravelMart Latin America is set for Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, to be held on the Brazil side of Iguassu Falls.

For additional information, contact the Jacksonville, Fla.-based event managing firm, William H. Coleman, at (904) 398-6777 or e-mail [email protected].

To contact reporter Carla Hunt, send e-mail to [email protected].

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