With impressive growth in arrival figures and new routes from Europe that look set to bolster arrivals further still, Abigail Healy learns about Chile’s latest developments.
Business is booming in Chile. The world’s longest country welcomed 4.4 million international tourists in 2015, a rise of 20.4% year-on-year and current forecasts predict a new record of 5.6 million arrivals in 2016, a 25% increase on 2015.
Factors contributing to the increase include airlift and international marketing efforts. The tourist board is currently promoting contrasting natural attractions, the Atacama Desert and Patagonia, which are key draws for tourists, but it is also focusing on the country’s capital and surrounding area, which are seeing something of a revival.
Adrien Champagnat, the tourist board’s Europe market manager, highlights Santiago’s rising culinary scene that is beginning to “compete with the likes of Lima”. As well as innovative young chefs imbuing the city’s food hotspots with contemporary dishes, wine is a key USP for Santiago.
“There are more than 50 wine routes within two hours’ drive of the capital and five years ago there were just one or two places where you could stay. Now there are five or six upscale accommodations which are especially well suited to honeymooners,” says Champagnat.
And halfway between Santiago and coastal city Valparaiso, visitors will find Casablanca – famous for Chilean white wine production.
Valparaiso itself has developed a trendy street-art scene. Champagnat says it’s the street-art capital of the world: “It’s like an open-air museum and visitors can take free tours there.”
With such rapid growth in arrivals, accommodation capacity must expand and Champagnat highlights 12 new properties that will add 3,000 rooms by 2018, an increase of almost 25%.
Among these are Ladera Hotel, which opened in January 2016; boutique property Luciano K, which opened in June; and Radisson Blu, which opened in July – all in Santiago. Beyond the capital, a new nine-room property, El Muelle, opened its doors in May in Puerto Natales – the access point for the Torres del Paine.
The national park will welcome a newly expanded airport in December this year. The project has included an expanded terminal and renovated runway that can receive larger aircraft, making it viable for scheduled airlines to operate between Chilean Patagonia and Santiago. Latam will operate the route between December and February with two weekly flights on Saturdays and Tuesdays.
“Now, if you leave on the first flight out of Santiago in the morning you can eat your lunch in Torres del Paine,” Champagnat says, highlighting the benefit of the new 90-minute service.
The national park isn’t lacking in popularity however, and for the first time, on October 15 this year a limit was imposed on the number of tourists that can visit at one time during high season, which falls between October and March.
“It is a positive step for sustainability and it should help to drive visitors during shoulder season too, but it will be necessary to book well in advance,” Champagnat asserts.
Last season, the park received 200,000 visitors and in January of this year alone, tourist admission to the two routes with available campsites – the “W” and the “O” – increased by 15.6% year-on-year.
As such, the objective behind the measure is to guarantee the quality of the visitor experience and protect the natural and cultural resources that exist in the areas close to the trails.
Looking ahead, international airlift is a hugely important contributing factor to continuing growth in the region.
Champagnat says: “The new British Airways flight from Heathrow to Santiago launching in January 2017 is huge news for us. We are really happy as a destination as airlift has always been an issue for us in Europe. Historically, it has been good from the US, but from Europe there’s usually a stopover involved, so it can be a very long flight.”
He says it’s a bonus that the route flies out of Heathrow as it will work well as a hub for international passengers.
The BA service is not the only high-profile route that Chile has welcomed this year. Alitalia began a Rome-Santiago service in May, reinstating the direct route after a 15-year lapse, plus there are rumours of a service with new Madrid-based Plus Ultra Airlines.
The announcement of the BA route has also called the tourist board’s plans into question.
“Last year, we were planning budgets in one way, but now we are taking money from other markets to invest in the UK as this is the year to do it – we have to capitalise on the new flight.
We have committed the highest-ever budget to the UK.”
Champagnat asserts that local Latin American markets such as Argentina and Brazil still make up the most significant proportion of Chile’s arrivals with 77% of international visitors coming from the region in 2015. Yet Chile’s star in Europe is very much on the rise and growing the market is a key objective for the tourist board.
Rodrigo Contreras Brain
director general Europe
Latam Airlines (LA500)
What does the expansion of Puerto Natales airport mean for LATAM?
We are committed to offering connections to, from and within Latin America and improved access to the most beautiful and remote areas of the region. In December, we will launch our service to Puerto Natales. This flight will provide easy access to the town and nearby Torres del Paine national park.
Do you have any other new routes this year?
We’ve added 11 new international routes and three new destinations, including a new continent – Africa. By December, we will serve Johannesburg (via Sao Paulo), Puerto Natales (via Santiago) and Washington DC (via Lima). In Europe, we also launched a direct service between Barcelona, Spain and Lima, Peru.
What will you be investing in for 2017 and beyond?
We will strengthen our position as the leading airline group in Latin America by investing in our network and consolidating our hubs.
Are there plans to expand the fleet?
Our fleet of more than 320 aircraft has an average age of seven years. In 2016, we added Boeing 787-9, Airbus A350 XWB and A321 to our fleet and took delivery of the first Airbus A320neo in the Americas. We will continue to update our fleet to ensure the best in passenger experience and operational efficiency.