Interview with Helen Kouyoumdjian

Executive Vice-President of FEDETUR (Chile)

Helen Kouyoumdjian, Executive Vice President of FEDETUR, holds a Master's degree in Tourism Management from the Carlos III University of Madrid.

Prior to assuming her current position, she served for four years as Head of Division and Investment at the Undersecretariat of Tourism in Chile, and in that role spearheaded the implementation of Chile's national and international tourism promotion, the development of new destinations and experiences, and the certification of labour competencies.

As Executive Vice-President of FEDETUR, she has proposed to consolidate the organisation as the main trade union and political representative of the sector, to highlight the importance of tourism in the economic development of the country and to deepen public-private collaboration in the definition and implementation of public policies related to tourism.

Helen Kouyoumdjian was also General Manager of the Corporación de Promoción Turística de Chile (later renamed Turismo Chile), and Commercial Director of Crowne Plaza Hotels for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Dear Ms. Helen Kouyoumdjian, since your appointment as head of FEDETUR, how many of the proposed objectives have been achieved, and what remains to be done?

Since I joined Fedetur at the end of 2018 at the beginning it was very important for me to collect and listen to the concerns of the private sector and collaborate in the search for solutions to their problems. Unfortunately, shortly after that came the social outbreak that had a great impact on the arrival of foreign tourists and on tourism activity in general, which forced us to focus our efforts on that front. Shortly after that came the pandemic with the consequences it had on tourism and life in general. So the goals I set myself when I joined Fedetur are still the same and still very much alive. Among them are to make this industry a sector recognised by governments and society as a driver of the country's economic and social development, with a strong impetus in the generation of job opportunities and in the territorial development of the country.

Let's talk about FEDETUR, what are the main demands of its members?

Our main demands during the pandemic were aimed at measures that would allow us to overcome the crisis and keep the sector on its feet, with the end of sanitary restrictions being the main call we made during this last stage, until we managed to eliminate them, as this is the way in which we will be able to start the reactivation.

In this new stage, we want to focus on recovery and on resuming those central issues for the industry, which were suspended with the crisis, such as making tourism a State policy in Chile, the sustainability of the sector, decentralisation, the creation of more jobs, labour adaptability, the formality of tourism activity, the increase of resources in international promotion, greater investment in tourism infrastructure, among others.

And FEDETUR's response to its members is?

As a Federation, we represent the interests and vision of our member companies and the sector in general, so we are closely aligned with the priorities and requirements of the private actors in the sector, with our commitment to work and develop the strategic axes of the sector, together with the public sector, which is key in this equation to ensure that national tourism returns to the levels it had before the pandemic and manages to make a substantial leap in competitiveness and development.

What is the profile of FEDETUR's members?

The industry is mainly made up of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, dedicated to different areas, such as transport, accommodation, travel agencies, tour operators, gastronomy, tour guides, among others.

It is a sector that is present and distributed throughout the regions of the country, generating jobs mainly for women and young people, two segments that have difficulties in accessing the labour market.

A significant percentage of these companies are family businesses or are made up of small entrepreneurs who carry out their activities on their own.

Are you an active member or do you expect to have everything ready to go?

Fedetur members are always asking questions and participating in the information, training, coordination and work that we do in the Federation. They also participate quite a lot in the surveys we regularly carry out when we want to obtain data or their opinion on certain issues, so they are very active and committed to the development of tourism activity and the work we do as a trade union.

Do you have a way of collaborating with other regional associations?

Due to the strong impact that the pandemic had on the industry, the industry became even more united during this period, where we strengthened ties with other unions and associations that are part of Fedetur and also with the regional chambers, because it is essential for the industry that there is a joint and coordinated work of the different actors throughout Chile, and in this regard, recognition has also been given to this teamwork led by the Federation.

What do you think are the main changes in national tourism after the pandemic?

More than changes per se, it was the realisation of the importance of tourism for the social and economic development of the country and its inhabitants, and especially for local economies. It was also to understand the fragility of tourism activity, because although in much of the previous decade there was a growing tourism boom, unexpected episodes such as the outbreak and the pandemic plunged us into the deepest crisis we have ever experienced.

For this reason, we must now work to build a sustainable industry that is better prepared and in a better position to face a possible next crisis, since hundreds of thousands of families depend on this activity and it represents an important contribution to the country's income.

What does Chile offer the international tourist that is different and unique?

Chile's natural wealth and diversity are its main asset and potential as a tourist destination, with the capacity to offer unique experiences, full of incredible and incomparable landscapes, where valleys, mountains, sea and desert are combined with fields, forests and impressive lakes.

Experiences of wine tourism, astro-tourism and first class local and international gastronomy, with the possibility of developing adventure tourism and providing a tourist offer for different interests and pockets.

Do you consider that Chile's offer is well known abroad?

At the regional level, in the South American subcontinent, Chile's offer is well known and valued. In fact, the Argentinians and Brazilians are our main inbound tourism markets. The United States market and some European countries are also better known due to the international promotion campaigns that Chile carries out with emphasis on those places.

But we have a huge challenge to make our tourism offer known to more long-distance countries, especially in Asia, Oceania and the Arab countries, to mention a few. There we must make greater efforts to publicise the advantages and attractions of visiting Chile.

In your opinion, where is Chilean tourism heading after a change of government like the one you have experienced in recent months?

In pandemic, we helped to make our demands as an industry visible and to get the authorities to consider our requests. In fact, we worked in different public-private bodies aimed at overcoming the crisis and we managed to obtain a response to a significant part of our requests in the time required.

Now the challenge is to maintain that visibility, to aim at strengthening this new stage, with the objective of ensuring that tourism is considered a state policy and not an appendix to the government programmes of each administration. We have to be able, as a country, to consider tourism as a permanent asset of Chile and address a medium and long-term plan for its development, with measures and actions that go beyond the governments in office and are sustained over time.

Let's talk about the training of Chilean tourism professionals, what is the situation, and what do you propose from the Association?

Now that we are coming out of pandemic mode, it is essential to resume this work, because training and the permanent updating of skills in the sector are an added value that we must strengthen in order to offer first class services and experiences that encourage visitors to continue to choose Chile as a tourist destination.

Prior to the pandemic and the outbreak, we developed an important work in deepening the process of digital transformation in the industry, through the Centre for Technological Extensionism (CET Tourism) of Fedetur, which provided training in digital tools for companies in the industry to improve their competitiveness and the dissemination of their offer, among other aspects.

We are also part of, and work side by side with, Transforma Turismo, a public-private body aimed at promoting and strengthening tourism in Chile.

In the current situation, what level do you consider the dialogue with the national authorities to be at?

In general, we have always had good channels of communication with the different governments, because for us collaborative work between the public and private sectors is essential.

What does Chilean industry offer to the social, economic and cultural development of the country?

In terms of social development, we offer opportunities for progress and wellbeing to many Chileans who work in our sector, as the industry generates 650,000 direct, good quality, stable and formal jobs every year. In addition, it offers continuous development options that allow people to grow in terms of work.

Economically, until before the pandemic, we contributed 9 billion dollars in revenue to the country, and represented 3% of GDP. In the not too distant future, we aspire to create one million direct jobs and double our contribution to the Gross Domestic Product.

And in terms of culture, well, we are an industry rich in heritage of different kinds, from gastronomic heritage, which is always an attraction for tourists, to cultural heritage, the richness of the destinations, of their communities, the customs and traditions, which are experiences that tourists are always interested in learning about and experiencing.

Tourism and social development are closely related. What is being done at the institution you lead?

We seek to consolidate the sector as a sustainable and sustainable industry, which incorporates care for the environment and the environments and communities where tourism is developed in each of its operating practices, because we seek to be very respectful of all the factors that make this activity possible.

Do you consider the digitalisation of the Chilean tourism industry a priority?

As I mentioned earlier, digital transformation is key for the industry, especially after the pandemic, where many actions that were previously carried out in person are now almost entirely done telematically or remotely, where the use of technologies is central to adapt adequately to these changing trends.

What is being done together with the authorities?

We are currently working intensively to regain the country's competitiveness as a destination, which was lost during the pandemic, among other factors, because we were one of the last countries to remove sanitary restrictions.

Along these lines, we are tackling international promotion campaigns to attract international visitors, and at the same time we are carrying out campaigns at the local level, with offers and promotions to attract national tourists and thus reactivate demand.

One aspect that we must also take up again is investment in tourism infrastructure, which responds to this need to offer first class tourism, where recovering the levels of public safety that we had some years ago is another of the tasks that must be tackled.

From a critical point of view, do you consider that Chile has the tourism development expected of a country that is more than 4,000 km long, with virgin mountains, coastline, lakes, etc.?

This is precisely what I mentioned in the previous answer. We still need to make a lot of progress in terms of infrastructure and quality tourism in order to make a leap forward as a tourist destination, which also means recovering the air connectivity that was lost during the pandemic, as there are currently fewer flights and frequencies to and from Chile.

In relation to tourism and the country's important natural heritage, do you think the offer is appropriate?

We have a very diverse and attractive offer, which we must polish and make the most of in terms of offering the appropriate infrastructure to make these attractions of interest to tourists, and at the same time, we must put it on the radar of national and international tourists.

Tourism, environment and sustainability have a great weight in Chile's offer. What are the programmes you propose to generate a tourism offer that will place the country among the leaders in South America?

Today more than ever, the issue of sustainability and mitigation of the carbon footprint are very sensitive for international tourism demand, especially from countries in Europe and North America. According to studies by prestigious tourism companies, close to 90% of tourists consider sustainable options when planning their trip and 65% of travellers have already opted for more environmentally friendly transport and accommodation when they have travelled.

In Chile, about 150 companies have the S Seal for Sustainable Tourism granted by Sernatur, which represents 1.2% of the total, so we have a big gap. We propose the implementation of a plan that allows the rapid incorporation of measures and tools for sustainability, carbon footprint and adaptation to climate change, such as support to companies and follow-up in the practical implementation, contact with technology providers, relationships with public and private entities for total or partial financing; in other words, encouraging all the actors in the ecosystem.

Finally, from the Tourism and Society Think Tank (TSTT) and hoping we can collaborate with you and your institution, what should we not miss on our trip to Chile?

There are many traditional and emerging destinations worth visiting, such as the valleys of the central zone, the lakeside areas of the central south, the beaches of the north, the southern highway, rural tourism, our mountain range, the extreme south of the country, the islands, among others. Everything is very varied and attractive to experience and feel our nature and our culture.

And what can't we not eat?

It is difficult to give a recommendation with such a wide range of gastronomic offer. There is no doubt that the national gastronomy, with its diverse seafood, or the more traditional products from the countryside. Each region has its own culinary hallmark. There is also a wide range of international cuisine on offer. It is very important to complement the delicious dishes with our offer of different types of wines, which are present in various wine valleys of the country and where there is a varied offer of wine tourism.

Dear Ms. Helen Kouyoumdjian, good luck to you and to FEDETUR in your commitment to Chilean tourism.

The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

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