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Move Over, Havana

Will Guayaquil’s beautification effort plan work to win foreign travelers?

December 7, 2002

Will Guayaquil's beautification effort plan work to win foreign travelers?

At first sight, the whole plan seems like a big stretch. Guayaquil is a gritty port town — located approximately 250 km from the capital, Quito. At present, it is known chiefly for its express kidnappings and nearby oil refineries.

And yet, the city is undergoing what some claim is the biggest civic beautification project in Latin American history.

In recent years, Ecuador has been whipsawed by fickle prices for its top exports — which are oil and bananas.

To help smooth severe economic cycles, the country has chosen to promote tourism aggressively, in hopes of attracting European and North American visitors.

The 10-year plan is to transform Guayaquil into a premier destination for foreign tourists — and hence to reduce Ecuador's dependence on earnings from oil and banana exports.

No one doubts that the beautification project has become a source of pride for Guayaquileños. But some wonder whether city boosters will succeed in their multimillion-dollar effort to make the port, located right on the equator, a tourist haven.

Critics say Guayaquil's efforts could end up being ineffective in bringing more foreigners and their money to Ecuador. After all, other Latin American cities, notably Havana, have been aggressively wooing foreign visitors — but with mixed results.

Ecuador earned $2.4 billion from the production of crude oil in 2000, or 41% of the country's total export revenues. It received $821 million — or 14 percent of its export revenue — from banana exports. Tourism came in third, bringing in $402 million, or 7 percent of total export revenues.

But the ratio has been shifting in favor of tourism for at least a decade. And officials in Guayaquil say their beautification plan will tilt the balance further.

“This is going to be the biggest urban transformation in Latin American history — I promise you that,” said Joseph Garzozi, director of tourism for Guayaquil.

“This country is in a deep crisis. International tourism is the most logical way to bring money into the country and into Guayaquil — and to spread it to a large portion of the population.”

Guayaquil’s reputation as a city of ill repute has already faded somewhat as it promotes itself as a lively metropolis blessed with a sultry climate, an abundance of salsa clubs — and a pedestrian-friendly sea-side boardwalk.

Ecuador's Ministry of Tourism recently hosted a delegation of Spanish tour operators during a three-day tour of the city’s top attractions.

Tourism officials have also recently entertained travel writers from Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and other influential publications.

Many visitors come away impressed. A thriving financial district is home to some of Ecuador’s best restaurants and nightclubs. And the sparkling Bahía Malecón shopping center is home to more than 200 riverfront boutiques.

The Anthropological Museum and the Contemporary Art Platform are some of the best places for gallery exhibits and live concerts in the greater Andean region.

The centerpiece of the efforts is Malecon 2000, an $80 million effort to turn the once seedy banks of the murky Guayas River — which drains the Andean hinterlands — into a boardwalk rich with public art.

Completed in 2000 with public funds and donations from Malecón 2000 Foundation patrons, the riverfront includes sculptures of Ecuadorean presidents, hundreds of restaurants and shops, and lush gardens with local flora and towering mango and almond trees.

Another cornerstone of the project is Cerro Santa Ana, a hill at the northern end of the boardwalk.

Francisco de Orellana founded the city here in 1538. Also called Barrio Las Peñas, the neighborhood had fallen on hard times in recent years.

Its dark alleys became the haunt of criminals and stray dogs, similar to the impoverished and squalid encampments of the “favelas” in Rio de Janeiro.

While that hardly makes it a promising sight for tourism, in the past two years, Las Peñas has had a facelift. The municipal government provided $3 million in grants.

The small concrete-block houses that spill down the hillside now shine bright blue, pink and green from fresh paint jobs. And some of the roughly 500 squatters have opened small restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops on the ground floors of their homes.

Electric street lamps guide people up 456 steps to a chapel, observation deck and lighthouse. Miguel Esteban Delgado, who heads Guayaquil’s tourist planning department, said once worthless houses could now sell for $40,000 or more.

Ecuador's own government officials modeled their renovation after similar beautification and boardwalk efforts in Curitiba, Brazil, Bogotá, Colombia — and Barcelona.

But despite all these hard efforts it remains unclear whether the plan will boost tourism — or whether a tourist boom would have positive effects.

Many cities in Latin America — notably Havana — are trying to capitalize on their colonial legacy. All of them are keen on winning some of the world’s roughly 700 million international tourists.

Tourism generated $463 billion in income in 2001, according to the Geneva-based International Labour Organization — and employed 9 million workers worldwide.

Due to successful marketing and public relations campaigns, Cuba's tourism industry grew 19 percent annually in the 1990s, generating as much as $2 billion in tourism revenues per year.

But despite Cuba's rich colonial and modern history, tourism growth slowed to less than 10 percent growth in 2001. The threat of terrorism is expected to keep the growth rate modest for now.

World events aside, it's unclear whether Guayaquil's campaign will work even on a modest scale. Despite the beautification, businessmen still worry about kidnappings.

Muggings and pick-pocketings are common, and streets outside the tourist zones remain potholed and dirty.

The number of armed bus robberies in Guayas, the province surrounding the city, increased alarmingly in 2002. And Guayaquil’s population of street dogs has mushroomed — despite a new campaign to kill many of these animals.

Guayaquil receives about 150,000 international tourists each year, according to the local tourism department. But most see only the city’s airport or bus station — before heading off to the Amazon, Andes or Galapagos Islands.

By contrast, Quito — rich with museums, hotels, cafes and scenic vistas — receives at least 250,000 international tourists a year. But some of Guayaquil's promotors believe that it can woo some of them from the capital — especially older travelers who worry about respiratory problems in Quito, 9,400 feet above sea level.

Staking Guayaquil's turnaround on vacationing retirees from Miami and Frankfurt may seem like a stretch. But for all the difficulties, nobody should downplay the importance of tourism to the local and national economy.

"Tourism is the best way to bring money to a diverse section of the population," Joseph Garzozi, Guayaquil's tourism director said, "not just to the elite."