Recently my daughter and I spent a month living in Buenos Aires and studying Spanish. Buenos Aires is a first rate city. It’s fun, livable, and exciting. Like Paris, BA is also a beautiful port city with greAt views, rivers, and history. The food is outstanding. It’s well organized and well set up to visit.
There are three major advantages that Buenos Aires has over Paris. First, porteños (what natives of Buenos Aires call themselves) are more fun. The vast majority of porteños come from Italian and Spanish backgrounds, and let’s face it, if the CIA classified party countries the way US News does for colleges, Italy and Spain would win. You can go from one fiesta to the next in BA, clubs which go all night, and a general attitude that spending time with friends and family is fundamental to life. It’s not that parisians don’t like to have fun, they just can’t compete with porteños.
Second, porteños are much nicer than Parisians. As the famous line goes ‘If tourists could have Paris without the Parisians and Parisians could have tourist income without tourists, everyone would be happier.’ I won’t belabor the point here except to say that the feel as a visitor to the two cities is extremely different. I felt welcomed by porteños everywhere in a way I have never felt in Paris. Porteños are just nicer.
Third, let’s face it, who speaks French? Spanish is one of the three major world languages, spoken in 20 countries. French is spoken in well France, by just a few million people. I took 13 years of French growing up and can count on one hand the number of times I have been able to use it outside of France. Argentinos have their twists on Spanish. but understand other dialects just fine. And no one scoffs at you if your pronunciation or grammar sucks, they help you!
This by the way is why Buenos Aires will beat its only major competitor in South America, rio. If you speak fluent Spanish, I’m told it’s possible to handle portugués, but for most of us with mediocre Spanish, that’s a step too far and a Spanish speaking city is far preferable.
So the potential is there for Buenos Aires to be a better visiting experience than Paris. Tourists spent $4b in Buenos Aires last year and $70b in Paris, so the upside in improving BA is enormous. Because sales tax is usuriously high in Argentina (not a practice I favor but it is the law) increases in tourism drop right to the bottom line of the argentine national budget, making the ROI on increasing tourism easy to calculate. If BA was able to double tourist spend every 5 years for 15 years, the $32b spent would be the largest sector of Argentina’s economy and tax revenues would increase by close to $6b annually. To get there, three areas need to be improved:
1 — clean it up!
Good — It is still common practice for porteños to take their dogs on a walk and let them pee and poop all over the sidewalk without cleaning it up. There is a law against it, but only young people follow it. My host in BA was a wonderful older lady who had lived in Buenos Aires for 20 years, after living in Mendoza and Montevideo. She is a very clean person and makes a point of taking pride in her neighborhood’s cleanliness. My host finds dog poop disgusting and she often goes out to the sidewalk to clean up, where she is often accosted by porteños who ask her where she is from ‘because she couldn’t possibly be from here’. So unfortunately this is another cultural thing, at least with older porteños. But many other cities had this problem 50 years ago and the fix is simple. Make the fines large and enforce vigorously for a couple of years and the behavior will change.
Better — The second problem with cleanliness is that the sidewalks are in disrepair. The streets themselves are perfectly maintained, but the sidewalks are not. For a few incremental dollars on every street, the city could make them much more walkable. The effect of the 3 p’s — pee, poop and potholes — is that you cannot take your eyes away from the sidewalk. I literally cannot tell you what the architecture of much of the city is, because I’ve never seen it, despite asking hundreds of miles on BA. Fixing the three p’s would make a huge difference in the way the city feels.
Best — make waterways in the city a virtue not a curse. while BA has amazing natural waterways, they are disgustingly polluted — poop brown, and that’s not an accident if you get my meaning. This is a huge problem as a tourist because you have to actively stay away from the water, which has so much potential. [site other cities who have cleaned up their wsterways]
Once that happens, opening more of the city to the water will vastly improve its wow factor. The city rehab’d a long dormant port in the 1990’s called puerto madero, and it is absolutely fabulous. It has awesome mixed use of retail, commercial and residential with 40 and 50 story buildings combined with historic one stories, parks etc. That project shows that porteños have the capability to transform their former industrial base to people friendly uses once the water becomes an attribute.
2 — make it safe!
Good — The first safety issue is simple. Once again, the law is clear, pedestrians have the right of way at crosswalks. But drivers, especially professionals like taxis and buses (which are private) act as if they are playing grand theft auto with a point for every walker mowed down. The only city more dangerous in my experience is Beijing. Enforce the law.
Better — The other dimension of safety is mugging. It is often said by visitors that BA feels like New York City in the 70s. Still a wonderful city, but you had to be constantly on guard against muggers. The same is true today in Buenos Aires. Everyone routinely wears their backpacks on their chests instead of backs for example. the fix in Buenos Aires is as simple as the one Rudy Giuliani implemented in nyc — more police and all of them on the street and visible enforcing even the most minor infractions. I can say that I never saw police on the streets. in BA in my month and hundreds of miles of walking here. Any time I passed a police precinct, I saw dozens of cops inside. The only time I saw them leave the building was when they were out to control demonstrations. While changing the role of behavior of the police force is a big undertaking, Giuliani and many others proved that a mayor who prioritizes safety can accomplish it, even in the largest cities.
Best — The final area that was consistently unsafe is wireless infrastructure. If you ask porteños, they will tell you that the city has lots of WiFi and it’s not a problem, but you need to have a subscription to a local carrier to use this and it’s a hack solution. But as a visitor, you are often somewhere without coverage and you need google maps or something to figure out where to go. I heard several stories of people walking around in Retiro and accidentally finding themselves in the villa next to the train station, an urban slum rival Ling those of Rio.
I’ve used my Verizon travel pass in many countries to access local carriers without hassle. It’s generally an awesome service, though costly at 10/day. Argentina is the only place where my experience was just bad. I understand from porteños that it is massively better than the days of having to replace SIM cards and talk to local carriers begging for bandwidth. But connectivity is one of those non-negotiables for traveling today and BA should take it seriously. My suggestion would be to figure out how to get the local carriers, which appear to be in a competitive market, the incentives to finish their infrastructure to great-city standards
3 — make it easy!
Paying for things is really difficult. As you probably know, Argentina went through a massive monetary crisis in 2002 and the trauma caused by banks unable to cover redemptions from businesses and consumers caused many suicides and terrible impacts on quality of life. Think of our 2009 crisis, but without the government prodviding backup for your savings, because they could not. The legacy of that crisis is a complete lack of trust for banks.
As a visitor, there are two main ways you feel that. First, banks act in a predatory manner towards visitors, charging 15% fees at atms. That causes crazy behavior like people importing big wads of cash and changing them with money changers on Florida Street. Banks need to make money through responsible lending, not by taking a service that is close to free everywhere else and making it expensive.
Because stores don’t trust banks, they prefer for you to pay in cash rather than credit. There is an elaborate ritual that they use to somehow get comfortable with taking your credit card because they feel on the hook for issuing you credit because the bank may not pay them. The effect is that you have to carry a lot of cash around because you never know when your credit card will not be accepted on some major purchase. I’m literally talking about things like hotel stays I had to pay in cash. That just needs to be fixed.
Better — Once we are actually able to spend our money easily, the next problem is that the country puts ridiculous tariffs on electronics and clothes coming from outside of the country, making shopping in Buenos Aires terribly expensive. Yes, letting the market be competitive will cause painful adaptation for Argentinian industry, but it will be wonderful for argentine consumers and increase in tourist spending on shopping alone would likely make it worth it. Based on my own behavior, my spending non BA would have doubled if I wasn’t constantly cursing stores and banks for ripping me off.
Best — BA has a functional subway system built in the early 1900’s but it is in serious need of upgrades. I spent two weeks in Tokyo before BA. What you get in Tokyo is trains that go where you want, come often (every five minutes or less) and can be crowded but not so that you are pressed body to body. Sadly, BA fails on all three of these dimensions. We routinely had to walk a couple of miles or take a bus from the subway stop to where we were going. For example, there is an awesome airport, AEP which is really close, but it has no subway connectivity so is a pain to get to. Subways cost about $100m per mile to bore today. Creating a north- south line down Florida steeet for example to unlock the beautiful neighborhoods of san telmo and la boca neighborhoods would pay for themselves quickly.
Frequency and overcrowding take the fun and convenience out of riding BA subways. I waited 15 minutes for trains on many occasions. I never had a train which was uncomfortable in Tokyo even during rush hour. By comparison, I routinely felt smooshed in Buenos Aires at odd times like 2p. Just add more trains and more people will ride.
I would love to see Buenos Aires become world class, it would be a fantastic place to visit or even live with these changes. I’m rooting for the porteños!