Between Tourism and Migration - Residential Tourism in the Ecuadorian Andes

Jordi Gascón

International residential tourism – or the retirement migration – is a recent phenomenon in the Andean area. However, in some places it has already caused conflicts and rapid changes in social and economic structures. Sharp increases in the price of rural land have made it almost impossible for young farmers to continue agricultural activities.

Residential migration to the Ecuadorian Andes has so far mainly been restricted to certain localities such as the colonial city of Cuenca and a few rural areas, such as Cotacachi in the province of Imbabura (Northern Ecuador) and Vilcabamba in the province of Loja (Southern Ecuador). The residential tourists are largely American and Canadian retirees who find quiet, attractive landscapes, a mild climate, an affordable cost of living in Ecuador – and an increasingly large group of retired compatriots.

Conflicts and disappointments

In the affected communities, however, residential tourism has spurred various conflicts and has caused locals to reject the foreign population. Conflicts arise when residential tourists refuse to participate in traditional practices of communal work (mingas), do not understand the difference between individual private property and community rights, fail to hire locals for cleaning and security services, or place pressure on municipal budgets by claiming services (water, electricity, road maintenance, etc.) in rural areas that they have urbanised.

At the beginning, it was believed that this form of tourism could generate new job opportunities for the local population in areas such as housekeeping, security, lawn care and construction. These sources of employment would also be accessible to local communities, mitigating temporary migration processes. However, this did not occur. New residents instead sought more skilled employees from the cantonal capital or outside of Cotacachi.

Increasing land prices in Cotacachi

However, the main source of conflict and rejection is rooted is a rapid and sharp increase in land prices. Traditionally, land purchase and sale processes were established based on valuations established by the municipality. When presented with an offer, the owner could choose to sell or keep the land, but the price was assessed. However, the demand for land due to residential tourism has skyrocketed market prices, rendering state valuations obsolete. Currently, these appraisals only serve to impose taxes or utility rates.

Price increases have not been uniform. Factors such as proximity to the cantonal capital and to roads, electricity and soil water affect prices. On average, the price of rural land in Cotacachi has tripled from the end of the 2000s until 2014.

Many young people have been forced to abandon farming due to extreme family farm minifundisation and the inability to acquire new land. When faced with the impossibility of accessing paid work in the community, they are forced to leave.

Pitfalls of regulation in Vilcabamba

The municipality of Vilcabamba with a longer history of tourism than Cotacachi placed limits on buildable areas. While the objective was to maintain the rural–agrarian character of the territory, this did not occur. On the one hand, residential tourism requires spacious gardens. Therefore, the building standards are suitable for the building model. On the other hand, the local population was forced to build homes for new generations on rural land with large buildable areas.

The President of the Parish Council of Vilcabamba explains the dilemma: “In urban areas, they say that the smallest lots cover 200 m2. With 200 m2, one can already build. In rural areas, lots must cover 1000 m2 to build a home. Foreigners with resources built in rural areas and took care of that. At a minimum, each owned 1000 m2. However, if someone wishes to buy in Vilcabamba, he can’t because 1000 m2 costs 250,000 or 150,000 US dollars. Our parents and relatives, who have retained their land, want to give a plot of land to their children as an inheritance. However, they do not have a lot of land, and they need 1000 m2 to build. This is the disadvantage we face. Vilcabamba must receive special treatment due to the presence of tourism. These ordinances govern the entire canton. In other parroquias [boroughs], this is feasible because there is a lot of land that is not as valuable as land in Vilcabamba. But everyone wants to live in Vilcabamba”.

From use value to land speculation

The rising cost of land favoured an autonomous speculative process: the price of land is unrelated to the amount of land needed for residential tourism. Now, land has become a capital reserve. The price increase decreased landowner interest in selling. Their interest instead lies in maintaining land ownership to increase differential incomes without making productive investments.

The examples from Ecuador illustrate how tourism favours the globalisation of territories that were previously marginalised in the world market. Residential tourism has promoted land exchange value while sacrificing use value, threatening the reproduction of peasant agriculture and rural ways of life.

Jordi Gascón is Associate Professor at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and History of America and Africa at the University of Barcelona and a member of the Spanish Forum for Responsible Tourism (Foro de Turismo Responsable).

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