Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Throwing Its Last FIT? Argentina's 2012 Tourism Fair

After arriving in Buenos Aires Sunday morning – 24 hours, door-to-door, from my Northern Hemisphere home in Oakland – I took a brief restorative nap until the early afternoon. Still groggy with jet lag, I took a mild spring afternoon’s walk to the grounds of the Sociedad Rural (pictured below), the traditionally powerful landowners’ organization.
I didn’t go to watch a parade of bulls and milk cows, though - the annual Exposición Rural, where breeders display their livestock, takes place in mid-winter. Rather, it was the fortuitous presence of the Feria Internacional de Turismo, which takes place every November at this time. From last Saturday until yesterday evening, international, national and provincial tourism offices, along with private operators, airlines and bus companies, presented their “products” to the public at large, but also to professionals such as travel journalists.
The biggest single presence was Brazil, which occupied one of three pavilions as the “special invitee,” but numerous other countries were present in the international pavilion, including every South American country except Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname. Mexico and Caribbean countries such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic also had a major presence, along with outliers such as India and Russia. The third “national pavilion” hosted every Argentine province and many municipalities.
Argentines love their vacations, so locals flooded the La Rural on Sunday – at times, the aisles were so full that it was almost impossible to move. There were plenty of live music events – a couple of folkloric dancing drummers (pictured above) from Santiago del Estero were a real highlight – as the crowd collected fliers and brochures that would help plan, or dream of, their coming vacations.

For many if not most Argentines, destinations beyond their own borders are indeed a dream because of the cepo cambiario (“currency clamp”) that prevents their purchasing foreign currency and blocks their ATM cards in other countries. On Monday and Tuesday, which were only open to tourism professionals, the crowds were more manageable, and I got to ask some friends and acquaintances about their impressions.
Some were not at all sanguine about the event. The Uruguayans with whom I spoke are cautiously optimistic, as they still accept the weakening Argentine peso, and Uruguay will refund IVA (Valued Added Tax) on goods and services to Argentines who travel to the other side of the Río de la Plata. The government will also exempt Argentines from a tax on rental properties, and even provide a US$25 fuel credit to cars with foreign license plates (Uruguay has some of the continent’s most expensive gasoline, approaching US$7 per gallon).

Argentina’s other neighbors are not likely to be so generous. Brazil, with its large diverse economy and strong currency, is unlikely to match Uruguay’s incentives. There was a large Chilean delegation at the FIT, but a friend of mine there said that visiting the foreign destinations represented here is fantasy for Argentines who visited on the weekend. “Nobody in Chile wants Argentine pesos,” she told me. As Argentines stay in their own country, increased local demand could increase prices throughout the country.

Unless and until the cepo cambiario collapses, FIT 2012 may be Buenos Aires’s last big tourism fair here – in coming years, delegations may not think it worth their while as long as Argentines cannot purchase foreign currency. The tipping point could be the approach of the 2014 World Cup, due to take place in Brazil; if fanatical Argentine soccer fans are unable to travel there, things might get ugly.

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