What Would It Take to Pave that Highway?

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At the big cocktail party opening for Travel Mart Latin America here in Frutillar, Chile, I met a man named Jose Koechlin Von Stein. We recognized him from when we saw him last night at the Cliffs Preserve, they were the only guests besides our large contingent of grumpy journalists.

He and his wife own three hotels in Peru and we talked about the prospects for increasing tourism in Patagonia. “Why can’t they pave the road, the Austral Highway?” I asked.

He answered with some wisdom gleaned over decades of living in South America. “In the 1920s, think of how your highways were in the US.” he said. “Just think about it…no interstates, corruption, it was hard to get something like paving roads done. But it did happen, it just took time.”

Patagonia, and Chile is like that. It takes a lot of time to catch up, and they are where the US was many, many years ago.

That has been the one thing that struck many of my fellow journalists as we bounced down terrible road after rutty avenue…that if a country wants to increase tourism, roads should be the highest priority. Because you’ve got to get people down here if you want them to enjoy the nature and the other attractions. There are an abundance, but infrastructure is tough.

But Patagonia’s population is only about 200,000, for this whole bottom half of the country. In Santiago, that’s where the millions of people are. The poor down here don’t have a voice. We listened to discussions and saw maps of building roads on the remote barely populated islands below Puerto Montt, and one guide said he doubted anything would actually ever happen with the plan.

But Chile’s Vice President tonight stated that his government was going to make tourism promotion a high priority..since as he explained, “it costs ten times more to train someone to work in a mine than it does to learn how to be a tourist guide.”

As we drove into Frutillar, a small lakeside town, the citizens were standing on corners of the road, smiling and waving flags as the coaches full of Travel Mart participants passed by. It was heart-warming to smile and wave back at them, crowds of people celebrating that so many tourism representatives had convened in their part of Patagonia…a place that could use the jolt of good news and inspiration from a major event after their salmon farming businesses have gone bust and hard times are upon them.