It wasn’t that long ago that the air in Buenos Aires was heavy with anguish prompted by a collapsing national economy. Now it seems the breeze is filled with the tunes of tango and men’s cologne.
The Argentinian capital is riding high on a tourist boom — one that relies in part on two new kinds of visitors: tango students and gay people.
The devaluation of the peso (currently worth just 30 United States cents) since the economic crisis of 2001 has helped spur the influx, of course. But locals and observers see Argentina’s traditional dance and societal permissiveness as powerful magnets.
Cheiko Kawashima, who came to Buenos Aires from her native Tokyo a decade ago, is one of the new breed of tango instructors catering to the wave of foreigners who want to master the dance.
The 38-year-old today dances in a bar and runs classes out of a milonga in the city suburb of San Telmo. For her, the capital was a revelation.
“I arrived in Buenos Aires without speaking Spanish. I understood nothing, I felt like a savage and in the beginning I was afraid because we [Japanese] don’t touch each other when we greet someone, and here everybody gave me hugs or kisses on the cheek,” she said.
“I had a ticket to return to Japan, but I let the date go by and I’ve never returned,” said Kawashima, who now describes herself as half-Japanese, half-portena (a Buenos Aires local).
Tango has long been a draw card for tourists visiting here. But now the trend is for the visitors to participate rather watch. Many attend one of the dozens of milongas that are open every day of the week to meet the demand.
“Many tourists book a tango teacher before they come for 15 to 20 days of dance lessons, and then they look for tango and milonga dance halls, and they don’t go as much to the more traditional tango shows,” explained a travel agent, Rolando Gori.
“Argentina has become a more sought-after tourist destination after the attack on the twin towers in New York, the Asian tsunami and the devaluation of the peso. Here, there aren’t any tropical storms or terrorism,” he said.
The capital, which prides itself on a European-style liberal society, has made efforts in recent years to woo homosexuals by increasing the number of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels reserved for same-sex couples.
That niche market is estimated to bring in about $600-million a year and 300 000 visitors.
On October 19, the capital’s first gay hotel — a five-star address whose 50 rooms go for between $250 and $300 a night — opened to wide media interest.
Guillermo Allerand, an editorialist in the top-selling Clarin newspaper, said the gay-friendliness of Buenos Aires was proving a revenue boon, and creating “a multifaceted and increasingly surprising capital”.
Little discrimination exists against gay people, and prices are considerably lower than in rival destinations such as Miami or Sydney.
“Argentina is a relatively relaxed country when it comes to gay people,” said Hector Gomez, a 37-year-old advertising executive from Spain making his third visit to Argentina. “You feel very comfortable being gay in Buenos Aires. I haven’t seen any sign of homophobia.”
Indeed, Argentina was pushed to the forefront of Latin American countries accepting the gay lifestyle into the mainstream when it passed a law in 2002 allowing civil unions among homosexuals. Last month, it also hosted the 10th Gay World Cup soccer tournament with its 500 amateur players.
The two strands of tourism — gays and tango — will join on November 26 when the first gay tango festival, Tango Queer, takes place. There is already a milonga, La Marshall, reserved for homosexuals wanting to learn to dance.
“The key to the gay form of milonga is knowing that the man can take on two roles: he can lead or be led, even though the latter is normally reserved for women in traditional tango,” said Augusto Balizano, a teacher at the centre.
Tourists soaking up the newly vibrant city say it is a welcome haven from the dangers and incontinences experience in other Latin American metropolises.
“Buenos Aires is a clean, organised and safe city,” said a Brazilian sipping coffee in a café, Marcelo de Oliveira.
“I’m surprised to see girls coming out of the nightclubs and walking in the street alone at dawn,” said the 40-year-old tourist from Rio de Janeiro, one of the world’s riskiest cities. “Nightlife is extensive and there are a lot of options for going out.”
But he added that the Argentinian capital’s success was proving a problem in itself, with many of the popular night spots packed to capacity.
Nevertheless, he said he keeps coming back. “Buenos Aires is a city that never sleeps,” he said. — AFP