Who are the Cuenca expats? Why are they here? What is their impact?: Results of the City of Cuenca and United Nations Development Office study

Jul 18, 2017 | 130 comments

Although there have been other studies of Cuenca’s English-speaking expats by the Universities of Cuenca and Azuay, none have been as extensive as the one completed earlier this year by the city of Cuenca and the United Nations Development Program.

A tour of potential Cuenca expats in 2013.

The study, Estudio Sobre Los Impactos Socio-Economicos en Cuenca de las Migración Residential, produced a wealth of new information profiling North American, British and European residents, which it calls “residential migrants”. The study confirms some popularly held conceptions about Cuenca expats while it debunks others.

Among the study’s major findings is that the average age of expats is 66; that they are well educated, with a large majority holding university degrees; that their average household income is more than $3,200 a month; that they take advantage of Cuenca’s cultural and recreational events and facilities; that they were attracted to Cuenca by media reports, especially on the Internet; and that the city’s major attractions were spring-like weather, good quality of life, and low cost of living.

The study also refutes a number of popular conceptions held by both expats and Cuencanos. Expats are not a burden on social services, including health care, and they don’t take unfair advantage of senior discounts available to citizens over 65; expats have had little impact on real estate prices; and the number of so-called “economic refugees” is less than 10% of the total expat population.

In summary, the study finds that expats have a positive impact on Cuenca, both economically and culturally.

One question the study fails to answer is how many English-speaking expats actually live in Cuenca. Since there has not been an official census since 2010, the study does not challenge the commonly repeated range of 4,000 to 6,000 although some estimates run as high as 8,000.

Many expats are attracted to Cuenca’s modern infrastructure.

Among the downsides of the study are the fact that much of the data was compiled before early 2015, so some of it is probably out of date. Another shortcoming is that it fails to consider the affect of the 25,000 to 30,000 Ecuadorians who lived overseas, primarily in the U.S., and who returned to Cuenca between 2008 and 2014 – their impact on the city, economically and culturally, is often misattributed to expats.

The study relies heavily on a survey of 665 expat volunteers.

Cuenca expat and former journalist for The Guardian, John Keeble, has compiled the following bullet points from the study. To access the full report, click here.

Cuenca expats by the numbers

By John Keeble

The following are the key points from the City of Cuenca and United Nations Development Program report on the impact of North American and European migrant retirees on Cuenca. The study refers to this group as “residential” migrants, differentiating them from generally younger Latin American migrants who came as refugees or to find better employment opportunities. Although some of the information reported covers 2016, most of it dates from 2015 and earlier.

Expats enjoy Cuenca’s casual lifestyle.

The purpose of the research and report, according to its authors, was to contribute to “local harmonious coexistence” at a time of change in Cuenca. The research included a survey of 665 North American and European migrants who volunteered for the study.

All figures and comments in the study are restricted to U.S., Canadian, European, Australian and New Zealand migrants who are described as an active, well-educated, baby-boomer population made up primarily of retirees.

For the purposes of this this article, “expat” refers specifically to the population that was the subject of the study.

  • In 2001, based on the 2000 Ecuadorian census, the number of migrants in Cuenca was 2,924 Americans (North, Central and South) and 518 Europeans. The figures rose to 8,291 and 1,002 in the 2010 national census. Counting all migrants, not just those from the Americas and Europe, there were 9,727 in Cuenca according the 2010 census. Using population figures for the Cuenca canton (“metropolitan” Cuenca), of 505,000 in 2000, 565,000 in 2010, the total immigrant population did not exceed two percent.
  • In 2014, 32% of migrants in Cuenca were estimated to be from the U.S. – with Peru (26%) and Colombia (20%) taking second and third places. These numbers have probably changed dramatically since the survey was taken due to rapid in-migration from Cuba and Venezuela (estimated to be 800 and 2,000, respectively, by the ministry of foreign affairs), as well as increased migration from rural areas and the coast following last year’s earthquake.
  • The survey of expats in Cuenca showed 84% were from the U.S., 9% from Canada, 4% from Europe and 3% from other locations.
  • The survey found the top four “home” locations for North Americans were Texas (10.6%), Florida (9.6%), California (9.1%) and Canada (8.8%).
  • The rate of migration to Ecuador and Cuenca increased dramatically after 2009 and is attributed to media coverage, primarily on the internet, of the benefits of living in the city.
  • The average age of all expats is 66.
  • 86% of expats are over 60 years of age while 65% of Cuenca’s total population is under age 35.
  • While expats have had little overall impact on the average age of Cuencanos, due to their relative low numbers, there is more impact on the 60+ age group because of the concentration of older expats.
  • 70% of expat men exceed 65 years of age while 54% of women do.
  • Half the expats have undergraduate university degrees and another 39% have post-grad degrees – meaning that 9 in 10 have taken university courses.
  • 84% of expats had held professional positions in their home countries before retiring. The most common jobs were university professor and high school teacher.
  • Average household income for expats is $3,230 for two or more people, and $2,346 for single people.
  • Breakdown of the average household incomes: 8% from $800 to1,000; 27% from $1001 to 2,000; 31% from $2001 to 3,000; and 34% $3,000 or more.
  • 86% of expat survey respondents live on income from their home countries; 75% of respondents have a second income from investments, including some with Ecuadorian financial institutions; just under 1 in 10 work to generate income in Cuenca.
  • 63% of expats living in Cuenca have 9-I (pensionado) visas; 13% have investment visas; 8% have professional visas; and 6% are dependents of visa holders.
  • Three in four expat migrants learned about Cuenca on the internet; 80% visited Cuenca at least twice before deciding to relocate; one in five were influenced by reports from friends or family living in Cuenca.
  • Most expats were attracted by a better lifestyle available in Cuenca, including better weather, lower prices, more affordable medical care
  • Two in three live in apartments, the rest in houses.
  • Three in four rent their apartments or houses.
  • 31% live alone; 69% live with others (typically, married couples)
  • Two in three use private medical care; 27% use public services; the rest use alternative medicine or return to their home countries for care.
  • 44% of expats who participated in the survey say they had joined IESS as voluntary members to take advantage of its health care program; 56% have private health plans. (This information conflicts with official IESS data that shows that only 272 North American residents in Cuenca are members of IESS and that only 74 actually used the system’s services in 2016.)
  • Pastimes and entertainment activities are many and varied among expats, with walking in the city rated first (17%), visiting friends second (9%), down to 1% doing yoga or photography.
  • 20% own a motor vehicle.
  • 93% use public spaces in the city, either often or sometimes, and many have multiple reasons: 61% for exercise, 51% to meet friends, 46% to make social contacts, and 27% to walk their dogs.
  • Expats favor living on Avenida Ordonez Lasso and in El Ejido, zones of higher socioeconomic levels. El Centro is not a high level zone but is also attractive to attracts expats.
  • Some expats live in rural parishes, the most popular being El Valle, Turi, San Joaquin, Sayausi, and Tarqui

How the report interprets the results:

  • While growth of the expat population began in earnest in 2009, the most dynamic inflow began around 2012 after media reports of Cuenca’s desirability as a retirement location. Although probably correct, there is unfortunately no “hard” population figures to support the assumption. The national immigration office was unable to supply numbers for the study.
  • Most migrants are over 65, which qualifies them for public and private goods and services available to Ecuadorians in the same age group. The report implies this is an area of concern to the local population who have contributed all their lives to earn the right. However, data from the study shows that very few expats take advantage of “senior discounts” and therefore do not put a burden on services.
  • Expats are mostly well-educated professionals “and this is one of the strengths that could be used by the community,” the report says.
  • Expats have high purchasing power “that undoubtedly energizes the economy of the city,” the report says.
  • Most expats prefer leased property and this makes Cuenca potentially vulnerable to losing migrants if other locations become more attractive.
  • One in three expats live alone, and due to their age, many locals consider them as being at risk in the event of a mishap. Local emergency services should monitor this situation, the report concludes.
  • Half of expats surveyed say they are registered with IESS but there are no figures to show actual use. (See note above)
  • Unlike local stereotypes of older adults in general, expats are “a very active group… which can help energize activities related to the enjoyment of the city, learning culture, outdoor entertainment etc.”
  • Although the language gap remains a barrier, expats “are a community willing to integrate and collaborate with city initiatives.”
  • Migrants’ consumption patterns match the upper middle strata of the Cuencano population: 76% eat at home, 24% eat mostly in restaurants; 68% use shopping centers, 22% use public markets and other local stores.
  • They spend about 40% of their income on goods and services, leaving “a high margin of income to finance leisure and entertainment activities.”
  • Local population suspicions of expats taking jobs are not substantiated by the study. “Only 9% are involved in economic activity” and this is mostly aimed at other members of the expat community.
  • Despite common perceptions of both expats and Cuencanos, data shows that expats have had little impact on real estate prices.
  • One area of concern – which is in the process of being addressed nationally – is the use by expats of public medical facilities to which local people have contributed all their lives. (Again, statistics do not bear out this concern.)

Actions and problems affecting integration:

  • Integration strategies are being developed by the city government.
  • Integration strategies in place now include offering volunteer activities, international weeks of cultural events, discounts for over-65s, and activities in public spaces.
  • There is a general, not always successful, attempt to cross the language barriers.
  • An acknowledged learning curve in negotiating the cultural difference in perceptions, expectations and the way of doing things.
  • Expats are better treated by local people because they are not generally regarded as either a burden on the state or a security threat.

The report acknowledges that Cuenca is becoming a multicultural society and adds: “It is assumed that the search for a harmonious coexistence between the local population and the immigrants is part of a global goal of achieving harmony between the local population and all migrant groups. This is consistent with the constitutional principle of equal rights for Ecuadorians and residents.”

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