I flew out to Ecuador recently to spend 11 days working on a development project in Ecuador with the Ministry of Tourism. The coast had been hit by a high intensity earthquake destroying most of the coastal region’s buildings and tourist accommodation, many people lost loved ones and homes as well as their means to earn a living and it was nothing short of devastating. However, from tragic events sometimes inspiration can be born and the Ecuador Minister of Tourism had an idea – maybe alternative accommodations such as glamping could provide a quick regeneration option and reshape the country’s tourism offer.
We might assume that creating such developments for South America has little in common with such a project here in Europe, however regardless of size or location all developments have the same objectives. Apart from one or two unique challenges, this project was no different. During my initial phone call with the Ministry’s representative I had a strong feeling that embracing Ecuadorian culture was important, as such during my first meeting with them I was thrilled to find that they felt the same way. Visits to museums had already been arranged – to the Museum of Ethnic Arts, the Pre Columbian Art Museum, and the Midad del Mundo centre. I took hundreds of photo’s just in these three places where I gained a fantastic, and surprising, insight into Ecuador’s ancient history. Those three days provided much inspiration for possible design concepts and a tremendous understanding of this country’s culture.
Initially I was asked to provide a feasibility study but it was quickly concluded that this would a superfluous exercise. Looking at the success of glamping in neighbouring countries, the potential was certainly there, we just had to decide what and where. We all agreed that this situation, as awful as it was, might also provide an opportunity to reform the country’s tourism accommodation offer into something more sympathetic to the culture. The brief was revised to suggest three locations and glamping development projects, providing three levels of accommodation – budget domestic, mid-price domestic, and international.
The rest of my time in Ecuador was taken up touring the affected regions on the coast, so it was planned for me to fly from Quito to Esmeraldes on the northern coast with my driver travelling overland in advance to meet me. Instead I chose to travel with him, I thought that the drive through mountain cloud forests, farmlands and villages would help me get to know Ecuador better, and it certainly did. It also turned out to be a more subtle introduction to the effects of the earthquake, as we got closer to the coast, we found ourselves having to drive carefully over more frequent rips in the road filled with hardcore, where the earthquake had pulled the roads apart.
Although some inland villages had suffered, it wasn’t until we got to places like Pedernales and Bahia that the full impact of the earthquake became clear, and of the two it was Pedernales that bore the brunt. The town was pretty much reduced to piles of rubble where restaurants, hotels and homes had once stood, yet here and there, two storey bamboo buildings were still full of people, serving food and operating as normal. The comparison was stark. As we made our way further down the coast, driving past many other types of, intact, bamboo structures my thoughts of design started to give way to the issue of resilience. The glamping structures had to be earthquake safe and traditional, indigenous materials were the obvious choice. You might think ‘job done, give one a glamping make-over – et voila’ and so did I until I discovered that domestic tourists aspire to ‘better’ types of buildings. The only problem was, most of the ‘better’ buildings were now piles of rubble.
Design and materials aside, there were other practical issues to consider, not least of all insects with an appetite for bamboo. Overall, the projects needed creative solutions that married safety, design, commercial appeal and a fusion of materials with a contemporary twist. During my visit I met with eco builders, materials experts, hotel owners and tourism representatives, and along with a few eco build ideas of my own, shaped the three suggested sites.
The days were very long and tiring, it could be hard to find a place to get food, and one one occasion the territory didn’t feel safe. On an emotional level it was also sometimes overwhelming – people who had so little to begin with, had lost even that… it was a good reminder of the principles of ‘gratitude’. Ecuador and its people are beautiful, if you haven’t visited do consider it, as a country it faces many challenges, but it is also enigmatic. I didn’t fully appreciate this, really, until I got back to the UK and started to go through the photographs – maybe I was so focussed on the work whilst there. One day I hope to return purely as a traveller, and spend more time appreciating the stunning landscapes, its people and endearing culture.