Open attraction: Paraguay has many historic tourist sites from the colonial period, such as the ruins of the Jesuit mission at La Santisima Trinidad del Paraná

Paraguay is little known as an international tourist destination despite having much to offer visitors in terms of natural beauty and history. However, the country's government is now taking steps to ensure that its many attractions become known to more than just the most intrepid explorers. Writer Silvia Pavoni

Being relatively unknown is not always a bad thing. For the sophisticated traveller who has already visited the most popular destinations of the world and wants an unspoiled experience, Paraguay is perfect.

Josephine Prior, an Argentine national who has lovingly restored an old colonial house in Paraguay's capital city, Asunción, also owns a lodge in a private natural resort in the Pantanal area, which is a largely uninhabited part of the country. Road connections with Asunción are poor but, once in the Chaco, according to Ms Prior, the difficulties of the journey are forgotten and visitors simply enjoy the uncontaminated nature surrounding them.

Similar locations have been extensively developed for tourism in neighbouring Brazil, which shares part of its Pantanal area with Paraguay. The Pantanal is a wetland area created by the seasonal flooding of the River Paraguay and its many tributaries. The Pantanal has become a well-known tourist attraction and has developed a series of high-end small resorts on the Brazilian side. Paraguay's tourism minister, Liz Cramer, intends to develop such boutique accommodation on her country's side of the border.

Tourism has only recently become a real growth sector in the country. "Paraguay is a country that is learning how to become a tourist destination," says Ms Cramer. "As an economic sector, which has a social and environmental impact, tourism is relatively new."

Tourism in Paraguay used to be a low-profile activity focusing on the country's craftsmanship and folklore, but the sector's economic potential is gradually being realised by government and businesses.

Low-cost destination

Asunción has increased its attractiveness to visitors in recent years. While new developments such as business hotels and shopping centres have recently been built, Asunción remains an extremely low-cost destination. In its annual cost of living survey, Mercer Consulting named the Paraguayan capital as the cheapest large city in the world for the fifth year running.

This is a fact not lost on some. A high-profile gathering of Harley Davidson motorcycle riders took place in Asunción last year and its 200 participants spent an estimated $280,000 in the city's shopping centres alone. The group is planning to return, with an expected trebling of the number of attendees.

"Last year we had 200 participants, now it is [planned to be] 600, because with the same money they would spend for a three-star hotel in Brazil, here they stay at the [five-star] Sheraton, eat in the best restaurants and get some discounts when they shop," says Ms Cramer. "Here, they are stars. We close the road so that they can parade through the city."


The Laguna Salada in Paraguay's Chaco region is an ecological treasure ripe for development as a tourist destination

Infrastructure development

The development of international events is very closely connected to the development of Paraguay's infrastructure network. Hotels, roads, internet connectivity and electricity distribution are all crucial to the creation of a hub for events. As developments take place in these areas, Paraguayans' confidence in their country is improving too.

"There is a growing realisation that we are able to host events. As a result, members of professional organisations, such as the local doctors' association, present Paraguay as a possible host for their regional summit," says Ms Cramer. "They didn't do this in the past."

The recent football World Cup has also helped Paraguay gain visibility as its team reached the quarter-finals only to lose to eventual winners Spain. According to the Vatican, Paraguay has another claim to sports fame. In a recent article, the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano states that football was born in the San Ignacio Miní Jesuit mission in Paraguay during the 17th century.

The Jesuit Reductions - settlements built by the Jesuits for local people - and the local Guaraní culture are tourist attractions in their own right and were brought to international attention in 1986 by the film The Mission, starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.

The Reductions date back to 1610, and housed tens of thousands of Guaranís in their missions, preserving the Guaraní language in Paraguay.

"From the beginning [of the Spanish conquest], local girls were offered to the colonisers so that they'd become part of the same family," says Ms Cramer. "And the mother tongue has been Guaraní since the beginning - the mothers were locals and they were speaking Guaraní at home. This is the only country [in South America] that conserved the local language and you still need to speak Guaraní to work in the countryside, if you're an engineer or a doctor, for example."

Finance minister Dionisio Borda agrees on the significance of the Jesuit missions, the Guaraní heritage and the country's hospitality as tourism resources. "There are tourist attractions here such as the Jesuit missions. This is a bilingual country where 85% of population speaks Guaraní," he says. "I speak it too.

"Paraguay is a country that has a tradition of hospitality [going back to] colonial times. And one of the reasons it is believed Guaraní survived as a language is because the Spanish people adopted it."

cp/96/Liz Cramer.jpg

Liz Cramer, Paraguay's tourism minister

Cash boost

In the past few months, international funds have been specifically allocated to the tourism sector in Paraguay, a first for the country, with a $10m contribution from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Government direct investments in tourism also include $2.1m in a centre based around the Guaraní culture, $2m to develop tourist destinations in the Chaco area, and a $2m investment for a centre for the Chaco. "We are going to launch four [tourism development] projects of very high specification," says Ms Cramer. "This is the first time that the government has provided funds specifically for tourism. It's not a big figure [in international terms], but it is [big] for us. And it is only for tourist projects."


All fields are mandatory

The Banker is a service from the Financial Times. The Financial Times Ltd takes your privacy seriously.

Choose how you want us to contact you.

Invites and Offers from The Banker

Receive exclusive personalised event invitations, carefully curated offers and promotions from The Banker

For more information about how we use your data, please refer to our privacy and cookie policies.

Terms and conditions

Request a demonstration to The Banker Database

Join our community

The Banker on Twitter