A resurgent Quito, Ecuador, took center stage last month as travel professionals from 46 countries converged on the 32nd TravelMart Latin America trade show. And while the regional confab, held Sept. 10 to 12 at Quito's convention center, boasted a record 8,000 appointments among 1,000 buyers and sellers, it was Ecuador itself, and most notably its revitalized, centuries-old capital, that commanded most of the attention.
Perched high amid the Andes at 9,300 feet above sea level, the sprawling, 16th century city has flourished in recent years thanks to an aggressive, $220 million campaign aimed at recovering and preserving much of Quito's picturesque, colonial architecture.
The city's revitalization has resulted in new upscale hotels and a new international airport (scheduled for completion in 2010) for the nearly half a million visitors, up from 202,000 five years ago, now cited by city officials.
This year's TravelMart, attended by 370 buyers from 287 companies and 635 suppliers from 270 companies, provided a high-profile opportunity for officials to both showcase their newly spiffed-up capital (which last hosted the event in 2003) and to continue their efforts to promote Ecuador as more than just a stop-off to the Galapagos Islands.
"The [Ecuadorean tourism] ministry has a budget of $8 million for promotion and marketing this year," said Ecuador's minister of tourism, Veronica Sion de Josse. "TravelMart represents 48% of that budget."
That sizeable investment was on full display during the elaborate, city-sponsored opening ceremony, in which a beatific Virgin of the Volcano, blithely strapped to cables, soared high above a colorful procession in Plaza Grande, Quito's main square. The theatrics paved the way for Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who addressed the TravelMart delegates.
"Here in Ecuador, we can travel with just one ticket to four worlds," said Correa (no relation to the reporter), referring to the four regions -- the Andes, the Amazon, the coast and the Galapagos -- at the heart of Ecuador's tourism marketing strategy.
Correa sought to impress upon attendees the level of his government's commitment to the travel industry, noting that it had "tripled the tourism budget, from $7 million in 2007 to close to $23 million in 2008, with a projected budget of $37 million in 2009."
That infusion of funding, Sion told reporters the next day, is part of a long-term economic strategy for the cash-strapped Andean nation.
"The goal of the government is ... for tourism to become Ecuador's largest industry, displacing the extractive industries, such as oil," she said.
And while that goal seems inordinately ambitious for a nation that is heavily reliant on oil production, it indicates the level of seriousness of Ecuadorean tourism officials, said observers.
"The tourism industry here in Ecuador gets it," said Bill Coleman, whose Jacksonville, Fla.-based event management firm, W.H. Coleman Inc., runs TravelMart. "They understand what an incredible product they have, and they are making the investment to tell the story to the international travel community."
One hundred forty-seven, or 40%, of the record 370 buyer delegates hailed from the U.S., a strong showing that Coleman attributed to several factors.
"Ecuador worked closely with us as we expanded the event's promotion," he said. "Quito has been working hard in recent years promoting their destination to the U.S. buyers ... [and] there seems to be an increase in [interest in] Latin America as the U.S. dollar value declines against European currencies."
TravelMart delegate Kay Miller, a buyer with Houston-based operator Ker & Downey, concurred.
"South America is more popular now generally," said Miller, who got to know Quito during a trip two years ago. "It's a great place to spend three of four nights."
Metropolitan keen on Quito
Impressions like Miller's are precisely what local officials, and the 35 Ecuadorean operators represented at TravelMart, are banking on.
Metropolitan Touring, the nation's largest operator, plans to open a 31-room, luxury property in Quito's historical city center in late 2010.
The $6 million project, known as Casa Gangotena, will be Metropolitan's first-ever urban property, and the latest addition to a growing number of boutique hotels in the city.
"We only want iconic locations," said Metropolitan's Veronica Sevilla, who added that her company wants "Quito to become a destination in its own right."
City tourism officials claim movement in that direction, saying that average stays have grown to 3.8 nights, up from just 1.2 nights in 2002.
Sevilla acknowledged the challenge facing tourism officials in convincing travelers that the city is more than just a jumping-off point for more exotic locales. "People don't say, 'Before I die I have to go to Quito,'" she said. "So you do what Quito is doing: You fix it and you promote it."