Officials and business owners throughout the country say tourism could set records during the long Cuenca independence and Day of the Dead holiday weekend. “If the numbers are not the best ever, they are certainly approaching the level we had before the coronavirus pandemic,” says Ecuador Tourism Minister Niels Olsen.
The Transportation Ministry estimated that more than a million Ecuadorians would be on the roads for the weekend despite the threat of political protests and the highway checks conducted under President Guillermo Lasso’s state of the emergency crime declaration.
“What the numbers do not reflect are all the local citizens who are coming out to festivals, fairs and restaurants, people who have stayed at home for much of the last year and half,” Olsen said. “Many of them have been scared to go out because of the pandemic but now that they see the virus is almost gone, they are ready to have fun again and to resume their lives. You can call the weekend a giant ‘coming out’ party for the country.”
In Cuenca, which hosts the country’s largest festival, the number of Covid cases had dropped to single-digits for the first time since March 2020. “Early in the year, we had 200 and 300 people in hospitals with Covid, many of them in intensive care,” said restaurant owner Jorge Armendariz. “Today there are only three and we have had only one death in a month. We are almost back to normal.”
Despite the rapid decline of cases nationwide, the national Emergency Operations Committee continues to urge citizens to use caution, particularly around large gatherings. “This disease is not over and we strongly advise that people not let down their guard, to continue to observe social distancing protocols and to wear face masks,” says Juan Zapata, COE president.
Despite the warning, local officials admit there is limited enforcement of the Covid-19 rules In Cuenca, police were advised by superiors only to enforce biosecurity rules in cases when alcohol is involved. “Yes, there are violations of the ordinances but the pandemic is almost gone and people want to enjoy themselves,” an unnamed captain of Cuenca’s Citizen Guards said Sunday. “We will intervene in extreme situations, especially in cases of clandestine parties, but our main interest is stopping crime and keeping people safe.”
According to National Police, nine parties were broken up in Cuenca during the weekend, three of them in bars that had not received authorization to reopen, the rest in private homes.
Many Cuenca hotels report full occupancy for part or all of the holiday weekend and restaurants, particularly those in El Centro, report their largest crowds since 2019. “We’re very pleased to see people coming out to eat again and hope it is is a trend that continues,” says Armendariz. “Many of us in the hospitality and tourism business have been badly hurt by the pandemic and some have gone out of business. We all want a return to normal and it look like that if finally happening.”
Fears that last week’s political protests would disrupt the holiday evaporated on Thursday and Friday when leaders suspended marches and road closures. “Some hotels had cancellations because of the highway situation but new reservations came in on Friday and Saturday,” said Miguel Iglesias, spokesman for the Azuay hotel association. “Even the people who don’t like the government don’t want a repeat of October 2019. This is not a time to protest, it is a time to celebrate.”
According to Olsen, the most popular holiday destinations in the country are Cuenca, Baños de Ambato, Quito and the coast. “We are also seeing the highest number of tourists in the Galapagos since the pandemic began,” he says. “The international tourists are returning. Like people in Ecuador, they are eager to travel and enjoy their lives again.”