Published on Jobs and Development

A Road to the Beach

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I often come to Same, Ecuador for vacations. It's a very small town of unknown population on the country’s northern Pacific coast. About 25 years ago, the only way to get there was in cars with four-wheel drive, but now there is a paved road that brings visitors from Quito down the Andes in around 5 1/2 hours.

Tomas Gonzales in a diving suit

Economists would normally predict that better infrastructure – in this case, improved access – would bode well for a small, isolated town. But the reality, certainly in the eyes of the long-time locals, is that the opposite occurred. 

The good years

Before the road, the majority of tourists were foreigners looking for Same's extensive beaches, protected by cliffs, royal palms, and tropical vegetation. They spent in dollars (back then Ecuador still had the Sucre as its currency, although in the early 2000s, it switched to the dollar) and supported jobs – often created by foreigners who came and never left – that evolved around hotels and restaurants, fishing, crafts, and agriculture. 

Juan Jose (Juanjo), an Argentian national who came to Same 30 years ago while in his late twenties, opened Bar Marina right at the beach – where tourists could buy fresh juices, cocktails, and pizzas. The business used to generate the equivalent of $300 per day net of operating costs. Pepo, a charismatic Spaniard now in his late 60s, bought ocean front land and built bungalows that he could rent all year long. At his restaurant, clients could enjoy paellas prepared with fresh local seafood while overlooking the ocean. Businesses like Juanjo's and Pepo's hired local workers as cooks, barmen, or guides; contracted local services for cleaning, maintenance, and construction; and purchased local products (such as tropical fruits and seafood). Tomas Gonzales, a seasoned fisherman who dives in the coral reefs to capture "dorados" using harpoons, remembers the times when he could catch enough fish in a few hours to sell and support his family for an entire week without venturing far into the ocean. 

The problem years

But things changed with the new road. More people started to come to Same, many locals sold their land cheaply to developers, parts of the palms and tropical vegetation were replaced by hotels, and a gated community with mediterranean style houses emerged on the north side of the village up the hills – attracting what was left of the "high-end" tourism. Same was left with “low-end tourism” – mainly nationals with thin budgets who visited only during the summer months or holidays. As for jobs, it is true that there are more of them now, but each one generates less real income, there aren’t enough to employ local youth, and crime rates have started to climb. 

Juanjo at Bar Marina

"The road destroyed Same," says Juanjo, whose profits have shrunk to a few dollars per day, with sales involving little more than mohitos and beer. Even for the fishing business things aren’t going well. Except for GPS, fishermen continue to use the frail boats and technologies of the past. Gonzales complains of lack of access to credit and competition from bigger boats coming from the north, which are also destroying the coral reefs and killing the local fish. "We could have great fishing and tourism around here," he says nostalgically, "but it is difficult to get organized and we lack capital to invest."

A “win-win” road

Could building the road to Same have been handled differently? In theory, by bringing down transportation costs, the road should have helped develop the local tourism and fishing industries and the production of goods and servicies that goes with them. In a way, it did, but it wasn’t the right type of tourism or fishing, at least not for Same or the towns nearby. Probably more educated and better informed local entrepreneurs and workers wouldn't have sold their land and would have preserved the fauna and flora. Probably with the right advisory services, training, and capital, Gonzales and other fishermen could have developed their businesses and now be exporting seafood to international markets. 

Who knows. However, next time a road is built to wherever, it would be good to investigate the other types of investments and regulations needed to truly promote local development and create goods jobs. That said, if you’re planning a trip, don’t hesitate to visit Same – where there are still beautiful places to visit and explore.

This post was first published on the Jobs Knowledge Platform.

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