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USTOA Panel Discusses Earthquake's Impact on Chile Tourism

April 20, 2010 By: Joe Pike


John Stachnik, chairman of the USTOA, leads the panel discussion

Eighteen members of the USTOA gathered for a panel discussion in Santiago Tuesday as part of the USTOA 2010: Our of Country Meeting in Chile and discussed everything from the earthquake’s impact on Chile tourism to what the country needs to do to attract more U.S. tourists.

John Stachnik of Mayflower Tours and chairman of the USTOA led a panel of leading tour operators throughout the country. Here’s a synopsis of some of the noteworthy questions the group tackled.

What impact did the earthquake have or will the earthquake have on tourism in Chile?

Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette Vacations, says the American travel population has been and will be apprehensive but the impact will not last for long. “Our job is to make (tourists) feel comfortable to go again,” she says. “We need to go home and restore and refuel resilience. So many people look to us for a decision on whether to come back and I really feel like that will happen.”

Rakesh Dewan, director of worldwide operations for Tauck, says there is a lack of awareness about the impact of the country and the safety of the country but noted that Chile is perhaps the most prepared of any country in the world in dealing with earthquake— a reference to Chile’s prior experience in dealing with earthquakes, including the world's greatest earthquake, a 9.5-magnitude earthquake in 1960. “There is going to be a fear factor,” he says, “but we need to educate. With time, the fear factor will go away.”

Following the panel discussion, Pablo Moll Vargas, general manager of Turismo Chile, chimed in on the topic, stating “this earthquake got one of our knees on the floor, but not both. We are back up and back to business as usual.”

All operators, in fact, say they are all back to operating in Chile. In fact, Collette Vacations was the only operator represented on the panel that had to suspend service to the destination, although Twidale noted that it was only in the few days surrounding the earthquake.

Who has done a good job in competing with Chile?

Nico Zenner, president of Travel Bound, said the main competitors of Chile are Norway and New Zealand for the simple fact that both destinations offer attractions similar to those found in Chile. Those destinations are also, like Chile, safe, he continued. As far as competitors within South America, both Zenner and Twidale both cited Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina. Zenner pointed to the “sexiness” of Brazil and the “mysteriousness” of Peru. He also says Ecuador is picking up a lot of buzz as well. Twidale says Peru “has been building a lot of buzz as of late.”

Instead of competing with a lot of these destinations, however, Twidale suggested that Chile needs to team up with these other countries to create multi-country vacations where tourists can spend part of a week in one country and the rest in another. “If you can’t beat them, join them, “ she says. “Couple with these other destinations.”

Eileen Hart of Isramworld/LaTour noted that in order to compete against all other destinations, “Chile needs visibility,” noting more media attention on tourism in the country is needed whether its through blogs or columns, or ads dealing with food and wine and other Chilean selling points.

What is the American perception of Chile?

Gillian Clark, director of sales, series and wholesale for Holland America Line, said many American travelers lack adequate knowledge of Chile and, in their eyes, “Chile is lumped with the rest of South America in general,” as opposed to standing on its own. “We need to be smarter in marketing the country because of that.”

Clark noted that adventure, culinary and culture travel are also facets of Chile that need to be promoting more in order to separate it from other destinations in the region.

Rajinder S. Mahil, chairman and CEO of Sita World Tours, noted that Patagonia is such an amazing place and needs to be exposed more within the travel trade industry, noting that, although most of the members on the panel have traveled all over the world, it was the first time that most had been to Patagonia.

Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations, says Chile’s main selling point is that it delivers an authentic experience. He warned suppliers to not get caught up in the price of travel there, but instead focus on the value. “No one chooses a $5,000- $10,000 vacation for the price, but rather if the trip is worth it," he said. "If you keep delivering quality, it’s worth the price.”

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