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By: Lou Corsaro, Pittsburgh Business Times

Travel companies probably don’t have to do much to sell would-be travelers on the merits of the generally temperate weather in Argentina, so its growing appeal to Americans goes well beyond the climate.

“More and more Americans are becoming aware of the ‘new world wines,’” said Mollie Fitzgerald, co-owner of Frontiers International Travel in Wexford, which offers hunting and fishing expeditions to the country, as well as “elegant journeys” for the nonsportsmen. “For sure, the wines in Argentina have come to the forefront.”

As a result, Fitzgerald said, the past five to seven years have seen an increase in “boutique hotel properties” that have upgraded the quality of accommodations.

Michael Cobb, CEO of ECI Development Ltd., agreed, noting the climate in Argentina is perfect for soil and growing grapes, leading to the Mendoza region in the West becoming a highly popular destination.

In 2007, more than 2.2 million tourists came to Argentina through Ezeiza International Airport, according to numbers from the country’s Tourism Secretariat provided to the Argentine Post. That was up 15 percent from the previous year.

Americans ranked second among tourists that year, with more than 286,000 visiting the country. It’s those kind of numbers that have Pittsburgh-rooted companies excited about the country.

ECI Development, which has resort communities in Nicaragua, Belize and Costa Rica, is actively pursuing locations for a resort community in Argentina because of its rise in popularity.

The country offers more than wine tasting tours. Frontiers, which sends about 3,000 people a year to the country, according to Fitzgerald, is a popular destination for fly fishing and hunting.

And “for the nonsporting traveler, certainly Buenos Aires offers a wealth of opportunities,” Fitzgerald said, including whale watching and hiking. “I think Buenos Aires has a really cosmopolitan atmosphere. It’s not like other South American cities. It has a very European feel to it.”

Cobb said another thing that makes Argentina, and many other South American countries, palatable is the cost. People doing business with ECI often are seeking property for retirement or second homes.

“We do a lot of informal survey work. Informally, I can tell you that, yeah, the idea of having a Napa Valley-type of estate for $250,000 or $350,000 … it’s 10 cents on the dollar of what it would cost in the real Napa Valley.”

Cobb said the downturn has only made South America more popular, feeding his interest in putting property in Argentina. From a development standpoint, Cobb expects to pick up property in Argentina in the next 12 to 18 months, and expects to have property for sale within three years.

The interest in Argentina extends beyond just the recreational. Other area companies such as Kennametal, H.J. Heinz Co., Mine Safety Appliances and PPG Industries have a presence there.

Kennametal has a sales office that employees about 18 people, according to Christina Reitano, manager of corporate communications.

And MSA has a sales and distribution company there that employes about 30 people.

“What led us to Argentina was that it’s the second-largest economy in South America,” said Ralph McIntyre, regional business director for Latin America and Africa. “Argentina, being on the eastern side of the Andes Cordillera, has a mining potential which is not fully realized.”

Fitzgerald said the only headaches in doing business in Argentina come from air travel, since everything flies through Buenos Aires.

“You can’t fly, for example, from San Martin to Cordoba,” she said. “There’s no route system in the country to connect. Everything transits back to Buenos Aires.”

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