Cuenca’s ‘gringo invasion’ may be exaggerated but new visa stats show the city is still popular with foreigners

Mar 20, 2011

Cuenca´s “gringo invasion,” a term coined by an Ecuadorian news magazine, may not be all it´s cracked up to be according to numbers released last week by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the national immigration office. On the other hand, the numbers show that the city continues to be the most popular destination for new expats in Ecuador. 

According to numbers released by the immigration office, 192 residency visas were issued to U.S. and Canadian citizens in 2010 in Azuay Province, where Cuenca is located. In total, immigration authorities issued 480 temporary and permanent visas in the province to citizens of 19 countries in 2010.

Immigration numbers through mid-March, indicate that 2011 numbers are keeping pace with those from 2010, with 39 new residency visas being issued to North Americans.

Sonia Gonzalez, a graduate student at the University of Cuenca, says she has heard claims that the annual increase of permanent resident North Americans is 1,000 or even higher. “I don´t know where people get this information but it is certainly not based on the facts.”

None-the-less, according to Gonzalez, the 2010 immigration numbers represent a large increase in North Americans living in Cuenca. “In 2008, there were only 44 residency visas issued to North Americans who listed Cuenca as their home address, so the growth is impressive.” She adds: “In total, there are 900 to 1,000 gringos with residency status living in Cuenca today and, if you add teachers, students and missionaries and others on long-term visas, the total may be close to 2,000.”

There is a great deal of “misinformation” about the number of foreigners, particularly North Americans moving to Cuenca, says Gonzalez who is currently living in Barcelona, Spain where she is completing her graduate project on tourism and immigration in Cuenca. “I have heard claims there are 5,000 North Americans living in Cuenca and that there will be 10,000 or 25,000 within five years — this is just plain silly.”

Unfortunately, according to Gonzalez, the speculation is being spread not only by foreign residents but by Cuencanos. “I know of at least one Cuenca business organization that is spreading the misinformation to its members. It is very dangerous to base business plans on unfounded rumors.”

Gonzalez, a business management major, plans to return to Cuenca in 2012 and advise businesses on marketing strategies.

The most popular visas for applicants from all countries in 2010 were the 12-IX, commonly called the tourist, sports or student visa, the 12-VIII, or cultural exchange visa used by teachers and the 9-I and 9-II residency visas. Citizens from the U.S. and Canada rank first and second in visa applications, followed by those from Cuba, Colombia, Great Britain, China, Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina.

Journalist and part-time Cuenca resident Sylvan Hardy says that the rapid increase in North Americans in Cuenca is due primarily to one factor: the 2009 designation of Cuenca by the International Living magazine and website as the world´s number one retirement destination. “This was the spark and then you had other publications and websites with much wider reach that picked up the story.” In 2009 and 2010, stories about Cuenca appeared on the Yahoo, MSN and Google homepages, as well as in such publications as U.S. News and World Report, USA Today, Lonely Planet and National Geographic.

Hardy says that there is a tendency among foreign residents, particularly North Americans and Britons, to over-estimate their numbers and importance. “It´s a combination of ignorance and arrogance and you see it wherever expat communities develop. In the case of Cuenca, most gringos are functionally illiterate in Spanish and depend on hearsay for their information.” He adds, “If they were back home they would be reading the newspapers and watching television news and have some basis to judge what they hear.”

Although both Hardy and Gonzalez say that the number of North Americans coming to Cuenca has peaked, they believe that the city will remain a popular destination for years to come. “If you look back in a couple years I think you will find that the number of in-coming gringos peaked in late 2010. This is borne out in the fact that fewer gringos are buying real estate and that tour bookings are down for North Americans. On the other hand, Cuenca remains a good place to live and now that it is on the map, people will keep coming.”

Says Gonzalez, “Anyone who has done much traveling knows that Cuenca is a unique city. There is a reason why it is so popular with foreigners.”

Photo caption: Although there may not be as many gringos living in Cuenca as some suggest, plenty more are coming down to check things out.

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