Welcome To Paradise—Please Lock The Door Behind You
As a writer covering overseas living and real estate, I get my share of comments and complaints. No matter what topic you touch on—from prostitution to condo deals to Wi-Fi on the buses in Uruguay—there’s someone out there with something to say. This feedback is good for a writer—and the publisher—as it keeps us connected to the readers.
But there’s one topic that I have trouble responding to. It concerns the impact that our coverage can have on the destinations that we write about.
Readers sometimes write to say that our reports are changing the character of a destination…or attracting too many people…or driving up real estate prices. At times, there’s even a feeling that the increased attention is changing the very attributes that made a destination attractive in the first place.
The truth is that all of these can be true at times. Editorial impact on an expat destination usually has one of three effects…
For some larger destinations, the effect of more expats moving in is insignificant. In places like Fortaleza (Brazil), Medellin (Colombia), or Montevideo (Uruguay) the high level of reader interest is a drop in the bucket. In Medellin, I see more North Americans all the time…but in a town of more than 4 million people, a few hundred expats is hardly changing the culture.
In other destinations, the coverage (and influx of expats) unquestionably benefits the local community and expats alike. In Quito, for example, North American expats were virtually the only people who were buying the dilapidated, abandoned buildings in the historic center. Today they’ve been beautifully restored into colonial homes, tasteful condos, restaurants, and boutique hotels. No one can deny that everybody won: the historic city, those who initially invested, and the end-users who got a good deal on the restored properties.
But the third effect can be a problem. The dilemma arises in cases where the influx of expats has actually changed the character of the destination. And whether you perceive it as good or bad depends on your personal role in the situation and when you came on the scene. In this category I’d include places like Roatan (Honduras), Vilcabamba (Ecuador), Granada (Nicaragua), and Boquete (Panama).
A few years after I arrived in Vilcabamba, another expat contacted me and demanded that I never write another article about the valley…I was going to ruin it by encouraging more people to come. The strangest part of this request was that the accuser herself was the newest arrival in town.
In fact, many who arrive in paradise want to close the door behind them. And I completely understand this…I’d like to do it myself. We always want to keep a place exactly the way it was when we fell in love with it, before all the “newcomers” arrived. Most of us tend to forget that we were the newcomers of yesterday. We fail to appreciate that today’s newcomers are falling in love with the “new version” of the destination, or they wouldn’t keep coming.
Often, out-of-the-way places initially appeal to the leading-edge risk-takers. But as more expats take root, the destination begins to have a broader appeal.
For example, in Cuenca, Ecuador, those few expat-residents of 13 years ago liked the fact that there were virtually no expats in town. But today’s residents appreciate the explosion of fine dining, ethnic restaurants, events, and the chance to be part of a positive and energetic expat community. Today, Cuenca is a much easier place to settle as a North American. And for every person in that first wave who likes it less, there’s an increasing number who like it more.
It’s true that increased editorial coverage can drive property prices in a small market. But I usually don’t agree with the complaint that expats have driven prices out of reach of the “local market.” While this may be true in some isolated cases, in the majority of locations, the sought-after houses that expats are buying were not within the reach of working-class locals anyway. In fact, I’ve seen many a local property owner benefit from selling into the expat market.
Here’s where I come down on this:
Writers and publishers have a job to do. You didn’t sign up for this e-letter so that someone like me could discover an idyllic valley with inexpensive real estate and a low cost of living…and then keep it a secret.
In the end, everyone deserves a chance at their own paradise, not just the first guy in.
In the grand scheme of things, we expats—and soon-to-be expats—are a relatively small and exclusive group. And, in this rapidly shrinking world, the mainstream will discover all of these hidden gems sooner or later anyway.
Given that, I’d rather that you have the opportunity to get there first.
Editor’s Note: Lee Harrison is the editor of our Overseas Property Alert. This once-a-week free e-letter service comes straight from Lee’s laptop to yours as he’s on the road scouting real estate markets of opportunity.
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