Quito is much more than just Ecuador’s capital. The city has one of the largest and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas. Indeed, it led Quito to be named one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978. Quito’s 130 historic buildings include ornate and art-filled 16th and 17th century basilicas, churches and palaces, connected by winding cobblestone streets leading to broad open plazas.
Located in the Andes at 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is within close range of spectacular natural attractions highlighted by Cotopaxi National Park. The city’s busy marketplaces and charming bohemian districts offer opportunities to experience cuisine and culture. Quito recently opened an international airport and a new convention center is under construction at the old airport site, along with several new hotels.
The job of coordinating Quito’s international tourism promotion falls to Luz Elena Coloma, general manager of Quito Turismo, a division of Ecuador’s tourism ministry. A former city council member with an intimate knowledge of Quito and its people, Coloma has focused on publicizing the city’s attractions and helping Quito shed its past identity as a pit stop for travelers headed to the Galapagos Islands. We spoke with Coloma at the recent Latin America TravelMart.
How have travelers traditionally regarded travel to Quito? Quito has been an afterthought for most tour operators. I understand that because 15 years ago in the tourist center it was difficult to have a three-day visit there. You didn’t have too many attractions, you had a lot of vendors in the street and you had a lot of insecurity. It was not visitor-friendly. Still you had all of these monumental treasures. So what the tourism operators did was bring the tourists in early in the morning at around 8 a.m. for a three-hour visit to see the Church of La Compania and then off they went to Galapagos.
What has your office and the government done to change those perceptions? Of course, Galapagos is the jewel of the crown of tourism here, but we have communicated that if you do not visit the Galapagos, you can still have a wonderful visit. We have grown. We now have better services, a new airport and we are building a new convention facility. The historic center has more things to offer and we have the Tren Crucero historic train and more touristic products. The private tourism industry is involved as well. Services are better and we have more professional people to organize things.
In addition to the historic train, what are other attractions in and around Quito? You can do the haciendas and the historic train and visit Cotopaxi, all around Quito. You also have natural and adventure attractions that are very near Quito. If you want to stay in Quito, you can use it as a headquarters to spend a day or two touring the markets, a day at the haciendas, come back and then do a day of bird watching. We are telling people to come to Ecuador through our gateway, and stay and enjoy it here for three days. What we do not want is for travelers to come to Quito for three hours and then go off to the Galapagos and forget about us.
What accommodations are available in Quito? We already have luxury hotels such as Casa Gangotena, but as a municipality we are putting in the market public-private strategic alliances to convert six historic public buildings into small hotels. We also have the bohemian part of the city where you have nightclubs and young people. There also are small three-star hotels there. There will be a new Holiday Inn hotel near the airport and a Hilton in the valley on the way from the airport. Marriott also is building a new hotel tower. The high-end hotels have been operating at 90 percent occupancy here, so I think we need more properties.
Quito currently attracts an additional 100,000 visitors each year, according to the latest government statistics. How have you been able to achieve this growth? We are growing and learning in the business. The government is supported tourism as it looks to create new revenue sources and Quito is learning to be a better city host for tourists. We are learning that tourism can be a great source of income for artisans, taxi drivers, restaurateurs, hotels and for such a variety of people in related fields. We are growing up.