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Expat Life

Evolution of an expat community: From ‘adventurer phase’ to ‘early adapter’ phase, the ‘saturation phase’

Editor’s note: Lee Harrison lived in Cuenca from 2002 to 2007, and since then has lived in Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Arizona. He puts Cuenca in late-Phase III or early-Phase IV of his expat community calculation, but sees early signs of Phase V.

By Lee Harrison

Expat spots around the world go through a fairly predictable cycle, morphing through a number of stages between their initial discovery and their maturity as a mainstream destination. The specifics of this evolution vary, but the general principles remain the same.

Phase I, the Adventurer Phase: During this phase, the destination attracts people who will go anywhere, regardless of existing stereotypes or perceived danger. These include adventurers and backpackers, as well sex travelers and those hiding from ex-spouses, pending lawsuits, etc.

The expat community is maturing in Cuenca. The author puts it in Phase IV.

Phase II, the Early Investor Phase: During this phase, people with money to invest, who believe they see potential in the destination, begin to visit and to take positions. At this stage, there is little to indicate that the destination will boom, so these early investors are acting on their instincts and past experience. At the Early Investor stage, travel and live-overseas websites and publications are beginning to take note that a hot-spot destination is emerging.

Phase III, the Early Adapter Phase: During this stage, more investors arrive as do the leading-edge of second home buyers. Overseas retirees arrive in larger number as well as those who want to work from abroad or start a local business. At this point, the expats who show up are able and willing to adapt to the culture, learn speak the language, and fit in.

A street off the main square in Vilcabamba.

Generally speaking, real estate continues to qualify as a bargain during these first three phases.

Phase IV, the Mainstream Phase: During this phase, the expat community is beginning to form a “critical mass” and to take on an identity of its own. By this point, some expats have blended into the local community, while others, including many who cannot speak the local language, can begin to survive within the expat community alone. Phase IV also brings opportunities for entrepreneurs, who can count on a fair share of expat business for their survival. Real estate prices during this stage move from bargain levels at the beginning to what I’d call “fairly priced” as the stage progresses. Early investors from phases I and II–at least those in it for the investment only–are thinking about moving on.

Medellin, Colombia has a phase III expat community but growing concerns about narco trafficking could delay its development.

Phase V, the Expat Saturation Phase: Here the expat community can take on a life of its own and becomes a recognized cultural entity within the local environment. This phase is also characterized by loads of opportunities for expat entrepreneurs catering to other expats. Newcomers can begin to survive on their own, without learning the language or ever becoming part of the local community. During this phase, property prices can reach premium levels. Early Investors may sell at this point, and Early Adapters from Phase III probably begin to miss the adventure of earlier times.

During Phases I through early Phase IV, most expats are adapters and survivors, and most succeed in achieving the lifestyle they came looking for. During late-Phase IV and Phase V, the expats moving in are increasingly what I would describe as just “along for the ride.” They didn’t do much investigating or preparing before they arrived and are less likely to learn the language and adapt. These folks often become resentful and unhappy.
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Reposted from 2015

  • Herman Vandonselaar

    Good article. Having been an expat in a few countries I agree with the general message of the article. However, I would put Cuenca at full on phase IV, with definite signs phase V is just around the corner. Also, I believe there is a phase VI, where the expat population declines, such as what is happening in Costa Rica at present. Another thing I would include in an article such as this, is the changes the locals go through as a result of the influx of expats. Or perhaps that could be an entirely separate article.

  • Ricki

    Only people we have seen unhappy are the ones that miss family, or are having unresolved health issues. Language follows, in time. You are as happy here as you would be in your home country, or another. Makes us nervous when expats peddle their goods.

  • Raven Whitewing

    Often, I see articles where expats, who experience difficulties in adapting are blamed and written off as resentful and unhappy. Our reality having come to Ecuador 10 years ago, and purchasing a farm, employing people, and contributing to the community.Plus, traveling back to US , to finish work and retirement over these years has been a mixed experience from paradise, to purgatory . How can one lump expat experiences? For example, after returning in Novemebr 2015, we had a home invasion , caretakers were tied up, and our main home was invaded by three armed men.My husband was shot. Do you think we might be resentful , unhappy??? Plus , if you have never interacted with the government on legal matters, foreigners have NO clue, as to the extreme difficulties you can encounter. I could share stories, of expats getting sued, and ripped off at every turn. Yes, living in Ecuador can be culturally challenging on many levels. Yes , some experts are truly ignorant and unprepared, however those who stick with living here, have most likely done some soul searching and have had doubts through the process.

    • Eslanda Goode Ramos

      What a wise message, thank you. One gets annoyed of too many self-proclaimed experts and their superficial views and reviews of reality. I was hit by a smart ‘internatiinal” gang of fraudsters and scammer – an expat couple, sellers of fictitious charming property in Vilcabamba, a fluent English speaking charmer – a young realtor, owner of Valley of Longevity real estate sgency, and a perfect abogago in an established office in Loja. They all knew, that the property could not get a title from Municipality, yet they hid it from me, with the abogago shamelessly stating that all the documents were in order. They lured me to deposit huge amount of money (cashier’s checks) in sellers’ account, with all the gang present at the bank. Only my habit of getting a second opinion helped me to quickly research the validity of papers I had been supplied with (and paid for). That abogago even tried to convince me to transfer to him the other half of property price, he “would do all title transfer, and send me to my address”, all included in the fee he had charged.
      It took me 5 years to get my money back! The abogago shamelessly laughed – “I would give you back your fee, but I have already spent it, ha-ha-ha!” And my compatriots fraudulent sellers kept the cash part of “first payment”. As – believe it – a safety deposit! Since that time, instead of having enjoyed my retirement in beloved Ecuador for years, I had to wait for my stopped money release by my bank. 5 years of my life stolen, and fear set in. I feel your pain, though I managed to get out alive. Thanks again.
      egr5854@yahoo.com