January 2011 issue

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Latin American seesaw

Despite its low cost of living, Latin America has felt the pinch of the global economic recession at its language schools, while negative publicity involving some countries has also sent student numbers tumbling. Gillian Evans reports.

Like schools in most other language travel destinations around the world, many language schools in Latin America have suffered reduced enrolments as a direct result of the global economic crisis. In Argentina, Mariela Tort from Mundo Español school – who is also a spokesperson for the Argentine Association of Spanish Schools, AACELE – relates, “[The] global recession has affected, I would say, all the Spanish schools [in] Argentina. Many schools were forced to reduce their prices in order to catch more students, and most of them reduced costs, as well. Unfortunately, some schools have even closed down.”

In Chile, Stefan Meffert, Director of Tandem Santiago, reports a similar scenario. “The global recession has strongly affected us during 2009,” he says. “We lost about 25 per cent of students in group courses.” However, he adds that during 2010 they managed to claw back half these losses.

At Academia Latinoamericana de Español in Costa Rica, the average length of stay of around eight weeks has fallen, says Gladys Portela at the school. “[While, in terms of student numbers], both 2009 and 2010 have performed similarly, there has been a decrease in the number of weeks registered per person, but an increase in the nationalities and age groups,” she reports.

Mexico, too, has suffered. Harriet Goff Guerrero, Registrar at Cemanahuac Educational Community in Mexico and President of the Mexican Association of Spanish Institutes, Asociación Mexicana de Institutos de Español, reports, “The recession has had a big effect on our enrolments in the Asociación Mexicana de Institutos de Español. People think twice about the expense of travelling and will look for something closer to home or put [their] language study on hold. [The] airfare is also a factor. If they find a bargain airfare they will make the trip to study.”

A closer look at student nationality trends reveals that for some schools it has been student numbers from long-haul destinations that have dried up. Lorena Belcastro, Director of the Buenos Aires Spanish School in Argentina, says that, while US and Brazilian enrolments have grown at their school, those from Europe have slumped. ”[The recession] has hindered enrolments because we used to work with many students [from] Europe and actually the crisis in those countries and the expensive flights caused [fewer] Europeans to come to Latin America,” she says. The school’s top student nationality, which used to be American, is now Brazilian, which she puts down to the proximity of Argentina and Brazil making travel much cheaper than to, for example, Spain, demand for which has been hampered by the strength of the euro.

Fellow Argentinean school, Mundo Español, experienced a “significant downsize in the number of students coming from the USA”, according to Tort, although numbers from Brazil were buoyant and their European student enrolments registered only a slight decrease. However, this year, American students have returned with numbers back up to pre-recession levels. According to Tort, this is in part because Argentina is gaining in popularity in general as a destination. “Argentina is becoming a very popular destination, probably one of the most [requested] in Latin America, and this is a big advantage for Argentinean schools,” she says. “Tango, beautiful landscapes, culture, football [and the] great academic level, makes Argentina a great country to choose to study Spanish abroad. Also, the cost of [living] is very low for Americans and Europeans.”

While some destinations in Latin America are experiencing an upsurge in popularity, Chile and Mexico have suffered, not only because of the squeeze on finances through the economic crisis, but also because of negative publicity. “We lost big numbers of Brazilians due to the recession, the [swine flu] virus and this year because of the earthquake,” relates Meffert. All these factors combined to result in a 61 per cent decrease in enrolments in 2009, compared with 2008, and 48 per cent lower than 2008 in 2010.

Mexico’s image also suffered a blow from negative publicity because of the swine flu pandemic in 2009, when some airlines even stopped flights into the country. In 2010 violent incidences between drug cartels on the Mexico/US border further affected international student numbers throughout the country, regardless of how far away the schools were from the problem areas. “We do not have any member schools in that region [where the violent clashes were], but there is a tendency to just lump Mexico all together, disregarding geography,” asserts Goff Guerrero. “For example, our schools are as far from the northern Mexican border as Warsaw is from London, or Miami from Chicago.”

Antonio Prado, Director of the Spanish Institute of Puebla, blames media hype about swine flu and the violence in one area of Mexico for their 40 per cent drop in enrolments. “I believe that it has not been so much the global recession that has [affected] our institution,” he says. “The things that have hurt the Spanish Institute of Puebla the most are the notion that Mexico had swine flu everywhere when the truth was the contrary, and the violence that exists in Mexico, that again the media has made seem like a problem all over Mexico when the truth is that Puebla, where our Institution is, [is in] the state with the second-lowest crime rate in Mexico.”

With the squeeze affecting their finances, students are looking for courses that offer them tangible returns. To this end, Portela reports that although shorter courses are now in demand, they have adapted their programmes to make them more effective. “Now a student may come only for one week and will take home a more structured block of information that will allow him or her to learn on his/her own,” she explains.

Goff Guerrero, meanwhile, says they have experienced a rise in demand for tailor-made programmes, and Spanish for specific purposes, with an opportunity for internships or volunteer experiences. In addition, she says, “Business, academic and community leaders in the USA, with many Spanish speakers in their area, are requesting professional development classes/seminars focusing on understanding Mexico.”

With an eye on the future, schools are working hard to attract students again. Belcastro in Argentina says they have launched online courses, “with the idea to keep in touch with potential students who are saving money for coming next year”. And to buoy numbers for now, the school has devised some enticing special offers, such as free accommodation in the low season if students enrol on a four-week course. In the meantime, the whole of Latin America is hopeful that 2011 will herald a more favourable business year.

Agents on Latin America

While language schools in Latin America report an overall fall in student numbers, many language travel agents say that for their businesses the recession has actually boosted interest in the region.

Cactus Language in the UK sends students to over 15 countries in Latin America and Alex Wolfson at the agency reports that the recession has actually increased interest in these countries among their clients. “Clients realise that Latin America offers much better value than Spain for courses of three weeks or more,” he says. Argentina is their number-one Latin American destination because, says Wolfson, “there are so many things to do there and because you get European quality at Latin American prices”.

Like Wolfson, Claudio Cesarano, Managing Director of globo-study Sprachreisen in Switzerland, says that students continue to choose Latin American countries because the strength of the euro against the US dollar makes it an economical choice.

Latin America is also the value-for-money option for American students. Alexa Boyce, Senior Study Abroad Consultant at AmeriSpan Study Abroad in the USA, says the recession has hit Latin American bookings less hard than other more expensive locations. “Europe is difficult to sell to Americans because the US currency is at such a disadvantage there. Further locations such as Japan and China are also difficult because of the rising costs of plane tickets,” she relates.“

While the recession seems to have had a positive effect on Latin American sales at many agencies, negative publicity about some of the destinations within the region have redirected enrolments to other Latin American countries. Vanessa Valero at NRCSA in the USA reports that demand for Mexico and Honduras has decreased because of crime in those countries.

Boyce says that, for them, Costa Rica is by far the most popular destination in the region but that Mexico used to be a close second. However, she says, “Due to the violence, swine flu and US State Department warnings, travel [to Mexico] has greatly fallen off in the last two years.” She adds, “We haven’t seen too much panic over the coup attempt in Ecuador, but as it happened during low season we had fewer travellers there anyway. Things seem to be calm now.”

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