Ecuador’s new multilingual tourism police provide assistance to Cuenca’s visitors and expats
By Stephen Vargha
In the United States, there has been a long-standing discussion within tourism circles about the value of policing services at popular tourist destinations. Some argue that the local police can handle tourism duties as part of their workload.
Others say police with foreign language skills and a special assignment of looking after visitors are a valuable addition to the local tourism industry.
Despite the debate, little has been done in the United States. This is not the case in Ecuador. A year ago, the Ministry of tourism started a policing program for tourists in the largest cities in Ecuador. Though there was a good amount of fanfare at the time, it is something that few expats and visitors to Cuenca know about.
“It was created by the Ministry of Government and the Ministry of Tourism,” said Maria Rosa Aguirre. “The ministries wanted to assist tourists with security and protection.” Aguirre is the Director of Ministry of Tourism’s Zone 6, which includes the provinces of Azuay, Cañar, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, El Oro, Loja, Morona Santiago, Pastaza, Tungurahua, and Zamora Chinchipe.
Aguirre has been the Director for three months. Prior to that, the Cuenca native was a technician at the ministry in her hometown.
There are currently 313 tourism police in Ecuador. Quito has the most with 200, followed by Guayaquil with 72 and Cuenca with 31 officers. There are eight officers in Baños de Agua Santa and ten officers in four other provinces.
Tourism police officers can have special duties based on their location. Baños tourism police officers are specialized in adventures. The town in eastern Tungurahua province is geared towards adventure sports and activities, horseback riding, mountain biking, paragliding, rock climbing, and daytrips to the Amazon jungle.
“In Cuenca, they work in pairs, and we focus on areas where there are lots of tourists,” said Aguirre. “Our primary areas, though not exclusive, are Parque Calderón, Calle Larga, and Paseo 3 de Noviembre.” These areas of the city have the highest concentration of tourists.
“We can and have gone to Turi and Baños de Cuenca,” said Aguirre. Baños is a parish located eight kilometers (five miles) southwest of Cuenca. It is known for its medicinal hot springs of volcanic origin.
Bicycles are provided to some officers for mobility and greater coverage. “It is easy to get around on bicycles,” said Aguirre. “Because they are on bikes, we sometimes go as far east as San Blas and as far west as San Sebastián in El Centro.”
Monday through Friday, tourism officers work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday are shorter with officers ending the day at 3 p.m. Fridays have the highest staffing with 28 tourism police officers on duty.
Wearing identifiable neon green jackets, they walk the streets of El Centro, through alleyways, and up and down the steep spiraling stairs of the New Cathedral. On their left arms is an insignia of the tourist police as well as large blue letters stating, “Policía de Turismo.” They go where they think tourists need their assistance.
The Ministry of Tourism has a technical team that meets at the governmental offices at Av. México y Av. Las Américas to decide where to go and when. National and religious holidays factor greatly into the ministry’s police coverage.
Tourism and related industries are a major contributor to the local economy. An academic study released in July 2019, “Segmentation of Tourists in the Heritage Site of Cuenca, Ecuador,” said tourism is “vital” to the city.
It is that way for the whole country. Ecuador has shown an increase in tourism in recent decades as it tries to diversify the country’s economy. In 2015, Ecuador received 1,543,091 foreign visitors. The tourists contributed 1.56 billion dollars in 2015 to Ecuador’s economy, which was approximately 1.5% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
That 2019 study said the tourism sector in the province of Azuay employed 4,358 workers, of which 1,412 worked in the hotel sector and 2,363 in the restaurant sector.
The Covid-19 pandemic greatly hurt the tourism industry in Cuenca. “Hotels and restaurants closed. The damage was great as tourism is the most delicate industry,” said Aguirre. “It has been very difficult to recover.”
Recovery may be on its way. The three-day weekend holiday earlier this month was a good one for the hotel sector. The occupancy rate for area hotels was 93 percent. “It opens an effective route for economic reactivation,” said José Luis Correa, President of the Azuay Hotel Association.
Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacios concurred. He tweeted on August 16, “The last holiday gave us positive results. We are the best and most beautiful destination in Ecuador. We celebrate it with pride. Cuenca is reactivated.”
The latest three-day weekend fits a growing pattern. “We are experiencing a recovery, especially during the holidays. In the last holidays, we have seen an increase in tourists,” said Aguirre. “The tourism police are part of the recovery for the economy from the pandemic.”
Aguirre said the tourism police program has been a great asset to the travel industry. She added that they have given support to local businesses as well as security for special events.
“We are working with private businesses to make it better for tourists. We want to fulfill tourists’ expectations,” said Aguirre. “This project has been very well accepted by the local hotels and restaurants,” said Aguirre.
It has been well received by unexpecting visitors, too. Expat Marshall Devall and his wife, Nadine, have been residents of Cuenca for over two years. They encountered the tourism police in Ecuador’s capital.
“We were so shocked and delighted when we visited Quito,” said Devall. “We were approached several times by uniformed guards who asked us if we had any questions about the city and specifically historic buildings in Centro, and several that were hidden that we should not miss.”
“Some tourists are surprised. They think they are in trouble when they see ‘National Police’ on their vests,” said Aguirre. “But when they see ‘Tourist Police’ on their armbands, they are happy to have their help.”
This adds to what a 2019 Salesian Polytechnic University study found. It said, “Tourists’ preferences when selecting the city of Cuenca as a tourist destination are located in variables such as beautiful city, architecture, friendly people, gastronomy.”
The Salesian Polytechnic University added, “Another important aspect is that the different opinions of tourists about the city are positive. Many people say that Cuenca is very quiet, and they mention the good behavior of people during their stay, where they feel very comfortable generating a unique experience when walking or using public transportation.”
Such comments are helpful for the city and the tourism sector. It is one reason why there will be English workshops in the near future to help the tourism police with their English.
All of this is why the Salesian Polytechnic University study thinks, “people feeling calmer will generate good feedback towards other people, being of great help and influence to choose Cuenca as a destination.” It will also increase the opportunity for return visits as well as an increase in tourism, the study said.
“I believe this program will expand, said Aguirre. “The idea is to have more police officers. This is the best way to make tourists to feel safe as they travel around the country, including Cuenca.”
Photos by Stephen Vargha