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On a Friday evening in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, two tables of diners were barely touching their food. Instead, their hands were raised as they simultaneously uttered the same phrase in Spanish, over and over again: “Que te pasa?” — literally, “What’s wrong with you?”
No, this wasn’t some sort of group argument, nor was it a commentary about the chef’s culinary abilities. It was just a typical gathering at The Argentine Experience, an immersive dining event that not only showcases this South American nation’s legendary cuisine — but also teaches guests how to talk, think and act like a local.
The dining program, hosted by a multitalented staff, is now one of the top-selling activities in Buenos Aires for Borello Travel & Tours, a New York City-based tour operator and wholesaler that specializes in South America. And it’s a perfect example of how the destination’s tourism offerings have evolved.
“We sell a lot of The Argentine Experience now,” said Sandra Borello, president of Borello Travel & Tours. “Travelers are looking for the same traditional places, but they’re enjoying them in new ways, like doing a city tour but combining it with street art or history or architecture.”
Indeed, Buenos Aires may be a world-famous destination known for its traditions and culture, but new activities — as well as new ways to experience established attractions — are providing a 21st-century spin on this long-popular South American city.
“Buenos Aires maintains its classic style while reflecting diversity and globalization,” said Liz Burgos, Latin America tour operator at Protravel International in Encino, Calif. “At the same time, the destination has evolved through technology, better travel routes and more tourism infrastructure. It has new hotels, new excursions, better meals and high-end wines, more security and greater diversity.”
Apparently, the changes are bringing positive results. Tourism as a whole grew 3 percent in the first quarter of 2018, and the number of North American tourists grew 4 percent, according to city government reports. Hotel occupancy for March 2018 was reported at 63.7 percent, the highest for that month in the last 10 years.
“The growth during the first trimester was a continuation of the trend from 2017,” said Gonzalo Robredo, president of the Tourism Entity of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. “The nation’s economic factors had an effect, as well as Brazil’s recovery and the ‘airplane revolution’ that is connecting the world. The estimates for the coming months are positive.”
The recent removal of visa fees for U.S. citizens, as well as the automatic reimbursement of the 21 percent value-added tax, has also helped to make the prospect of a Buenos Aires vacation more attractive, according to Borello.
“It definitely makes a difference when you consider the costs,” she said.
Burgos agrees about the positive momentum, citing the recent devaluation of the peso and the increase in airlift.
“International airlines have been adding direct flights to Buenos Aires,” she said. “And domestically, low-cost airlines are dramatically changing the air market.”
United Airlines is one carrier that sees growth potential in Buenos Aires, according to Patrick Quayle, the company’s vice president of international network. The airline, which has been serving Buenos Aires nonstop from Houston since 2005, added new service from Newark, N.J., in late 2017.
“The flights are performing very well,” Quayle said. “That’s the beauty of the Houston and Newark flights combined. We’re seeing more small cities around the U.S. have greater access. It’s easier to get down there.”
United has also upped the ante by adding Polaris business-class service on its Buenos Aires flights. A new Polaris lounge opened recently in Houston and Newark, and new lounges will open later this year in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. American Airlines, meanwhile, is scheduled to launch nonstop flights from Los Angeles in December.
The Argentine Experience is an experiential dining program; it’s a good example of some of the new experiences in Buenos Aires available for travelers.Credit: 2018 The Argentine Experience
The National Congress is a top tourist site.Credit: 2018 Travel Buenos Aires
The Museo Evita is part of an Eva Peron-themed tour.Credit: 2018 Travel Buenos Aires
Floralis Generica is a unique sculpture in a city park in Buenos Aires.Credit: 2018 Travel Buenos Aires
Galileo Galilei planetarium is popular with tourists.Credit: 2018 Mark Chesnut LatinFlyer.com
Puerto Madero is an up-and-coming area of Buenos Aires.Credit: 2018 Travel Buenos Aires
LGBT tourism is a major niche market for Buenos Aires.Credit: 2018 Travel Buenos Aires
The Centro Cultural Kirchner is the largest cultural center in Latin America.Credit: 2018 Travel Buenos Aires
The city is doing major construction on the Paseo del Bajo walkway.Credit: 2018 Buenos Aires tourism
The Obelisk is a top landmark of the city.Credit: 2018 Travel Buenos Aires
Going for the ExperienceThe concept of experiential travel is a hot topic around the world, and Argentina is no exception.
“Buenos Aires still has its cultural attractions, with 287 theaters, 160 museums and 380 bookstores,” Robredo, of the city’s official tourism office, said. “That’s part of our identity. But we are much more than just that. The city is focused on experiences.”
Robredo says that today’s travelers are “increasingly looking for an authentic activity that allows them to experience the city in the first person. They’re looking for something they can’t find in Europe or the U.S.”
This city of nearly 3 million residents offers plenty of “only in Argentina” activities to meet the demand, from Eva Peron-themed tours led by political experts to cooking classes with Argentinian chefs and art workshops with local artists.
“Buenos Aires has always been a city that doesn’t stand still,” Borello, of Borello Travel & Tours, said. “New neighborhoods have developed, and there’s a story to be told in each one. Areas such as Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood are historic, but they’re also totally up to date with what’s modern and new.”
In addition to The Argentine Experience, Borello says she still sells a lot of city tours — but now, they include more diverse elements, such as public art and street art. Immersive side trips to places like La Bamba de Areca, where visitors can live the life of an Argentinean gaucho on a picturesque estancia (cattle ranch), sell well too, she said.
Technology has also changed how visitors experience Buenos Aires. The tourism office provides a variety of digital tools, including BA Tours, which allows visitors to reserve and purchase tours online; BA Planner, which serves as an itinerary organizer; and BA Turismo, an app that serves as an electronic guidebook.
Borello sees increasing traveler interest in design and fashion — so much so that she plans to add the topic to her website. She says young people in particular often want to shop for shoes and clothes by Argentine designers.
Additionally, the Tango, the traditional dance of Argentina, is more alluring than ever, according to Pam Walker, owner of Walker Adventures, a Virtuoso agency in Palm Coast, Fla.
“Strangely enough, the television program ‘Dancing with the Stars’ has had an amazing effect on bringing people to Buenos Aires to learn to tango,” she said. “I’ve had numerous travelers ask for tango lessons.”
In addition, “Rojo Tango,” one the city’s most extravagant tango shows, has refreshed its performances, with more dancers, more costumes and more creative interpretations.
Hotels have also upped the ante in Buenos Aires, with a greater presence in trending neighborhoods, as well as those that are long-established.
“It used to be a lovely city, almost like Paris, with a few hotels for business types, all in the downtown area near the Obelisk,” Walker said. “But now, hotels are popping up all over the place, from boutiques in Palermo to bigger hotels and boutiques in Recoleta, and even now in Puerto Madero, the new ‘in’ place to live and have fun.”
In the now-chic waterfront Puerto Madero district, both SLS Puerto Madero and Viceroy Buenos Aires are slated to open in 2019.
Some hotel brands that already have a presence in the city, meanwhile, have diversified their offerings. Travelers looking for a modern take on the luxurious Alvear Palace, for example, can opt for the artsy Alvear Art Hotel. And NH Hotels — which has several properties in the city, including the centrally located NH Collection Buenos Aires Lancaster — now offers two adjacent properties that are both steps from the Casa Rosada presidential mansion: NH Buenos Aires City Hotel and the newer NH Collection Buenos Aires Centro Historico.
With more hotels in a wider array of neighborhoods, travelers can easily choose strategically located properties that fit their budget and taste. Travelers who can’t afford the Four Seasons but still want to enjoy the upscale Recoleta area, for example, can check into the value-priced, recently renovated Recoleta Grand, which is within walking distance of the same attractions.
Niche AppealNearly everyone agrees that special-interest travelers are a crucial part of Buenos Aires’ tourism success in the 21st century.
“High-spending segments, such as luxury and LGBT travel, are two of the most important markets,” Robredo said, noting that Buenos Aires recently ranked among the top 10 destinations at the British LGBT Awards.
To further cement the city’s positioning as a gay-friendly destination, Buenos Aires tourism officials joined their counterparts from Argentina’s Ministry of Tourism this year to participate in Proud Experiences, a new international LGBT tourism fair that took place in London, attracting suppliers from destinations ranging from Europe to Israel and India.
Protravel’s Burgos says the city has strong allure for all sorts of niche travel segments.
“Buenos Aires has always been a city of diverse culture,” she said. “The Jewish area has an excellent cultural heritage and exclusive activities for this market. The LGBT market in Buenos Aires continues to grow annually, surpassing historic cities such as Rio de Janeiro. The law of equal marriage a few years ago has shown the world that Buenos Aires is a vanguard city and open to the world in all aspects, without conflicts. Religious travel has also been on the rise, as well as the cruise markets."
For all its leisure appeal, Buenos Aires also relies heavily on international corporate travel, according to Robredo.
“Business travel last year brought 480,000 tourists, generating $533 million in revenue,” he said. “It grew 18 percent, driven by events and meetings organized around various themes.”
Indeed, the meetings market is an especially lucrative niche. Buenos Aires, in fact, is the top destination in the western hemisphere for international meetings, according to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). And the segment set records in Buenos Aires last year, with 131 international events, the highest number for the city since ICCA began publishing its annual ranking.
Ultimately, regardless of what brings visitors to Buenos Aires, the important task for any travel agent is to build an itinerary that takes full advantage of the wide range of experiences available in this iconic destination.
Work With Knowledgeable SuppliersSome tour operators and suppliers know Buenos Aires better than others. Likewise, some operators in Buenos Aires have a more complete understanding of the U.S. market than other companies.
Emphasize the Value“The dollar is super strong, and it goes a long way,” said Sandra Borello, president of Borello Travel & Tours. “Visitors don’t pay the reciprocity fee and the 21 percent value-added tax, so what was an expensive destination now isn’t.”
Stress Diversity and Progress“The city is cleaner and safer, and there are more activities and places to visit,” Borello said.
The city, for example, is investing in new projects such as Paseo del Bajo, a bypass slated to open in 2019 that will improve traffic flow while simultaneously creating new urban park space.
Create CombinationsBorello says that Buenos Aires sells well as part of itineraries that include other destinations in Argentina, as well as Chile, Uruguay and Brazil. Currently trending, she says, are itineraries that combine Buenos Aires with Peru, since there are many flights to and from Lima.
Become an ExpertTo keep travel agents up to date on how to sell Buenos Aires, the city tourist office sometimes leads training sessions in the U.S. Conferences in Buenos Aires — such as Emotions Travel Community — that can also be useful. And for those who can’t meet in person, “we offer an e-learning platform called BA Expert, which allows free training from anywhere in the world,” noted Gonzalo Robredo, president of the Tourism Entity of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.
The DetailsBuenos Aires Tourismwww.turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar