Beyond its fine wine, tango and Maradona, little is genuinely known of Argentina outside of South America. Whenever alluded to in terms of international significance, it appears to me as if little extends beyond the lessons invoked of its default in 2001, especially given the Eurocrisis context (an example of which repeated itself a few days ago, not to mention the illustrious colleague from the CD News team responsible…), and the longstanding Malvinas dispute. Few are aware of its economic resurgence in the past decade and the unique and almost unparalleled opportunities the land offers in terms of tourism and investment. So how exactly has the country strived to reinvent itself as an attractive destination, how effective may such efforts be regarded to have been, and what challenges remain to improving international perceptions?
In December of 2001, Argentina was at its lowest ebb. Having declared the largest debt default in history and suffered a dramatic devaluation of its currency, millions within the space of days had their savings wiped out. A country many had previously considered among the most prosperous in Latin America could only watch in horror as two thirds of its population was plunged below the poverty line. The entire political class was thoroughly discredited, the presidential institution becoming somewhat of a revolving door with five presidents in the space of a fortnight. A country on the fringes of the continent was with no little irony dubbed by commentators as quite literally at the “end of the world.”
The crash may have brought the country to its knees, the effects of which still evidently reverberate, but it offered an opportunity. A vastly weaker peso made the country much cheaper to visit and invest in and easier to export from. Numbers of foreign tourists steadily rose and the country slowly rekindled its potential as one of the world’s largest agricultural producers and an industrial exporter. In hand with such favourable conditions, largely responsible for a rapid growth rate over the past decade nearing double digits, there have been extensive efforts to give Argentina a face lift. Perhaps the most obvious sector through which this has been conducted is tourism, one of the more conspicuous means through which the country is marketed to outsiders, and among the economy’s largest sectors. Statistics are notoriously unreliable in Argentina, but it is thought that over two million tourists were annually entering the country in the aftermath of the crash, and by 2010 over five million were believed to have visited, a staggering rise.
Visiting Argentina has always been an attractive prospect, given the variety and splendour of its natural and cultural assets. The country has just about everything a tourist could hope for, with World Heritage sites and natural wonders ranging from the Igauzu Falls to the Patagonian glacial fields and a cultural scene boasting endless possibilities, the best known of which are perhaps the tango, its passion for football and legendary gaucho, to only scratch at the surface. Such is the diversity of the sights and vastness of its geography, that the country has been often marketed on a regional basis and its activities classified as pertaining to active, cultural, sporting or special interest tourism. Coupled with slogans such as “Argentina beats with you,” “Argentina, more than one reason” and “Argentina, a serious country,” there are few countries in the world offering what Argentina does, and this has been the vital component of its efforts to change international perceptions of the nation.
But Argentina’s rebranding efforts do not solely extend to a national level, with much having taken place in the previous decade to improve its world standing. The remarkable economic turnaround has encouraged investment and allayed some of the gravest fears resulting from the default. Its exports have been valued for their quality on the international markets, products such as its wines, meats, soybeans and cereals to mention a few. Known to many as a sporting powerhouse, particularly in football, tennis and basketball, the success of stars such as Lionel Messi, Juan Martin del Potro and Emanuel Ginoboli are of invaluable publicity. Furthermore, while modern Argentine culture has for years been respected worldwide, the last years have seen it more energetically promoted than before. Tango festivals have sprung up all over the world, the books of Jorge Luis Borges and Jorge Cortazar and other more contemporary authors sold more briskly at international book festivals such as Frankfurt and mainstream musicians continuing to make their name all over the Spanish-speaking world. Political perceptions have also somewhat improved, international respect for attempts to try those responsible for the egregious human rights abuses of the last military dictatorship and, as recognised in the Nation Brands Index of 2010, legislation to legalise same-sex marriage last year examples of this. Many of such endeavours have enjoyed active governmental support, especially by means of the Strategy Country Brand, a newly conceived interministerial commission responsible for exporting the “Brand Argentina.” One of its most visible present activities is the joint campaign with Brazil for the Iguazu Falls to become one of the new Seven Natural Wonders.
The country’s image may have vastly improved over the past decade, but significant challenges remain to further progress. The economic outlook has brightened, but rampant inflation, unaccounted properly for at official level, and doubts about debt restructuring and bond repayments lingering from the days of the default have created an environment of economic uncertainty and deterred foreign investors. Neither have nervousness about the current government’s unpredictable economic course, the prevalence of corruption and relative difficulty of conducting business gifted the country’s image any favours. In regards to tourism, the main vehicle through which the national brand is promoted, though the last decade may have been an enormously successful one for such a nascent industry, work still remains to be done. Experts argue that infrastructure and services, unprepared for the boom in foreign arrivals, must be expanded and improved. Moreover, some have stated that greater integration is needed between the private and state sectors, and greater regulation required to guarantee greater standards across the board. Lastly, there are those who contend that the country’s promotion is needing an identity and greater direction, lacking what can be defined as a marca país or nation brand, something by which the country can be identified across the world. While many commonly associate Argentina with Maradona and tango, the recognition needs to be deeper and more diverse, several commentators suggesting the production of goods of a level of excellency for worldwide export as a step in such direction.
Ten years on, “Brand Argentina” is in a much better place today, recognition of which is exemplified by its 33rd place in last year’s Nation Brand Index. But to fulfil its boundless possibilities, increased political and economic stability are a must, as is the need for the tourism sector to continue to be as flexible and innovative as it has been this far. Only once these elements are improved upon, the former two having particularly been historical dilemmas for so long, then Argentina may aspire to become a premier international destination for tourism and investment, a brand worthy of worldwide respect.