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Maldonado, a lot more than sun and beach

Article - November 23, 2016

Region aims to attract visitors year round with new projects and facilities

“In the last five years we have seen extraordinary growth,” says Minister of Tourism Liliam Kechichian, when talking about the increase of visitors to Uruguay. “Especially last year when we had 5% growth. And we expect to grow even more this year. Our projecctions are around 6.5% or so. You can see the potential of the sector when in two years we have created more than 11,000 new hotel rooms.”

Tourism is a growing economic sector that continues to expand on a global level each year. Tourism represented 9.5% of GDP globally in 2014 and 7% of the GDP in Uruguay. “Last year we received more than 3 million tourists. That’s almost the same number of people living in Uruguay,” says Ms. Kechichian.

“We had 300,000 people visiting from cruises that landed in Uruguay and 220,000-230,000 that arrived for tourism along the border of Brazil for things like shopping,” she says. Specific incentives have been designed to actively promote commercialism, like the return of taxes on tourism services. Marketing campaigns have also been put in place in countries that are considered key clients in attracting more visitors to the area. Uruguay offers traditional sun and fun with the beautiful beaches along the coast, but many people have begun to discover the rural areas that offer serene experiences in nature.

There are experiences available for all levels of tourism and have the luxury of not having to travel too far for a change of scenery. While Uruguay is proud of the beaches it has to offer, the Ministry of Tourism is focused on making the country a place for investors and businesses to come for conferences as well.

“Uruguay has had 20 or 30 years of being associated with the sun and beach and Punta del Este which is without a doubt, a flagship location and will continue to be a top level attraction for tourists in Latin America. But, we have decided that Uruguay will not just be about tourism along the Atlantic coast, but rather all 19 categories of attractions that make up Uruguay.”  This initiative is highlighted with the focus on the creation of new infrastructure intended to host guests for all kinds of events.

The Punta del Este Convention and Exhibition Center is expected to be up and running during the second half of 2016. The facility offers the total package of services including the latest and most modern audiovisual equipment, simultaneous translation, video conferencing and more. A space is set aside for networking and the facility offers future and the ability to set up scenes for large presentations including parking for up to 600 vehicles. The benefits of constructing a facility like the stretch far beyond tourism and into job creation for the nation.

General Director of the Convention & Exhibition Center, Arnaldo Nardone, remarked, “If we begin with banquets for three or four thousand people, which is something that up until this moment could not be accommodated in Uruguay, the people are going to benefit from the waiters all the way to the farmers who cultivate potatoes or asparagus.” Mr. Nardone is the former president of the International Congress and Convention Association, which is a global network that specializes on experiences in the meeting industry.

Mr. Nardone has said previously, “For Uruguay this will be a before and after project that should frame the future of Punta del Este and Maldonado. It’s a project in which all of the tourism operators and providers will have to work together to position Uruguay as a place for national, regional, and international events.” The hope is that other businesses in the tourism industry like hotels and restaurants will use the convention center as a tool for their benefit, taking advantages of things like their shuttle service and selling space. The country as a whole is taking steps to have a more active presence in the global community overall.

Mayor of Maldonado, Enrique Antía says of the region in general, “Uruguay is a small country, dependent on the region and it hasn’t been able to open itself up to the world yet. We are trying to look for spaces to open ourselves more as political leaders and today an attitude of open-mindedness like Chile or Colombia have is helping to present better options in the markets.”

Over the years Uruguay has been affected by problems from larger countries, making it difficult to function independently from their markets when problems arise. As Mr. Antía describes, “I remember a saying from economists that said, if there was a flu in Brazil, it’s a cold for Uruguay. If there’s a sneeze in Argentina, it will lead to congestion in Uruguay. That’s how dependent we have been in the past.”

But, change is on the rise as people like Mr. Antía advocate for a more economically sufficient Uruguay. He says, “With luck over these last few years, we have opened ourselves up more and now there is a Mercosur that is changing. There are signs that in three, four, and six months, there will be a change on the level on international relations and that will allow me to look very optimistically at the future.” The future is what leaders are focused on and with construction on projects like the Convention & Exhibition Center, growth will occur on a vertical level.

Today there are more than 100,000 people working in the tourism sector and Liliam Kechichian is working to ensure that the industry continues to grow. “In these five years that it has been up to us to govern, we have put in place the theme of quality as our fundamental point of focus. When we talk about the quality in tourism, we know it has a lot to do with our human resources. It’s still an industry where machines can’t do the majority of the work. The receptionist, the tour guides and chauffeurs do the truly important things because they are the ones who interact with the people.”

With these steps and many others in place, the tourism sector in Uruguay is already in motion to expand and cultivate an increased international presence as an attractive destination for both leisure and business.