10 Great Places to Start a Tourism Business Overseas

A dive shop in Caribbean Mexico? A jazz bar in Panama City? If you've got a good idea and an entrepreneurial streak, the opportunities are unlimited.

International Living
start a business abroad, work overseas
Panama is a great place to start a tourism business
Photograph: International Living

Whether you’re looking for a way to supplement your retirement income and stay busy overseas… or you need a means of supporting yourself abroad… the good news is that your options are many and varied. Opening a money-making business with a tourism bent can be a lot easier than you think—especially if you aim for a market that’s on the upswing. It all starts with a good idea… and International Living's editors are full of those. Here are some of their ideas for the best places to start a tourism-related business today:

1. Mexico: Show Travelers Low-Key Loreto
If you’re a nature lover, there are few places in Mexico that can match the area around Loreto, in Baja California Sur. Right on the Sea of Cortez, Loreto offers just about every water-related activity you can imagine. Swimming, sailing, snorkeling, fishing, whale- and dolphin-watching…it’s all possible here, in one of the world’s most diverse marine eco-systems. On land, Loreto’s desert landscape offers hiking, horseback-riding…and magnificent vistas for photographers. There’s lots to do, but relatively few operators taking visitors to do it.

FONATUR, the Mexican government’s tourism-development agency, hand-picked this area 30 years ago as having the potential to be a world-class tourist destination. But unlike mega-resorts like Cancun, Loreto today remains pretty low-key.

Increasingly, though, tourists and expats are discovering Loreto. (At just 700 miles from the U.S. border, it’s an easy trip, especially for those coming from the U.S. West Coast.) And many who come once return year after year, swelling the ranks of this area’s fans.

If you dream of starting your own business, such as a small hotel or a sports-fishing enterprise, check out Loreto and the Sea of Cortez. Its beauty and low-key charm may be just what you’re seeking.

—Glynna Prentice, IL’s Mexico Editor

2. Great Tax Incentives Outside Panama City

There isn’t a single business person in Panama who hasn’t heard of Panama Pacifico. One of the world’s largest mixed-development projects, it is poised to become a city within a city. Close to the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, just over Panama City’s Bridge of the Americas, this area used to be an Air Force base called Howard.

But today, a special arrangement offers business and tax benefits to certain types of businesses in this area. For example, set up shop here and you could pay no taxes for the transfer of goods and services to ships, passengers, or any of Panama’s mega-ports. The Panama Pacifico “Special Economic Area,” as it’s called, has lured plenty of big business, from giants like 3M to Mailboxes, Etc. (the UPS Store).

But little businesses have yet to take hold in the former Howard…and so much is needed. There is a daycare, a single gas station, and little else. There are already hundreds of people living here and some 2,500 employees work here every day. The poor souls have nowhere to go for a latte or even a nice business luncheon…yet. Many of the people who live and work here are foreign, and new transplants continue to arrive. Start a business here now, and you’d be the first in with a major head-start. Perhaps you could start with something as straightforward as offering city shopping tours to busy executives and their spouses and families.

—Jessica Ramesch, IL’s Panama Editor

3. Give Theme Tours in the City of Light

You can find lots of books about “romantic Paris.” But I recently came across a title that gave me pause:  Naughty Paris: A Lady’s Guide to the Sexy City. Says the book jacket, “Whether you want to be titillated by erotic art or seduced at the city’s most exclusive swingers’ clubs, this guide is the key to choosing your own adventure.”

It got me wondering. Maybe swingers clubs would be a little much… but women on “girlfriend getaways” might thrill at the idea of becoming a femme fatale and getting an insider’s insight into Naughty Paris…or Naughty Anywhere, come to think of it.

In Paris, France, it’s not unusual to see custom tours beginning at $380 per half day and $775 per full day for up to five guests. Themed tours — naughty or not — could be a great way to fund your own trip overseas.

—Steenie Harvey, IL’s European Editor

4. Big Gaps in Colombia’s New Tourism Market

Thanks to decades of bad publicity, Colombia is just starting to emerge as a tourist destination. In 2009, it boasted Latin America’s strongest growth in tourist arrivals. So what’s lacking? English-language websites, for one thing. An English-speaking tour operator or aggregator with some marketing skills could do well here.

The World Bank reports that starting a business in a small town in Colombia is easier than in a big city. Our advice: look at Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast and Villa de Leyva near Bogota. Near Medellin, check out Santa Fe de Antioquia and the lakeside towns of Guatape and El Penol.

According to Attorney Alberto Marenco in Cartagena, it’s very easy to start a business in Colombia. “No special permission is required. Simply ask for a business visa at the Colombian Consulate in your country.

“Once in Colombia, your passport along with your business visa is all you need to create an association, company, open a bank account, or engage in any kind of business. Repatriating money is easy. Colombia has many international banks which can send your money to wherever you designate.”

—Suzan Haskins, IL’s Latin America Editor

5. Nicaragua Says “We Need More Hotels”
There may be no better place to start a business right now than Nicaragua. Incentives include attractive income tax and property tax exemptions, exoneration from import duties on vehicles, exemption from sales tax on the purchase of equipment and construction materials, and more. Several laws have been passed to encourage investment tourism and renewable-energy businesses, and export-oriented industries, including light manufacturing, agribusiness and contact centers. For more information, see www.pronicaragua.org.

Last June, Tourism Minister Mario Salinas said the country is in dire need of more hotel rooms. Nicaragua has just 7,800 rooms and can use four times that number.

Tourism is booming. According to data from the Central American Tourism Integration Secretariat (SITCA), Nicaragua was the only country in Central America that registered positive growth in both tourism arrivals and tourism revenues in 2009.

Where in Nicaragua should you settle? For a tourism business, try the colonial city of Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua—the country’s top tourist destination—or San Juan del Sur on the southern Pacific Coast. The television show Survivor has shined a bright spotlight on this pretty beach town.

—Suzan Haskins

6. Open Your Own Bar on the Spanish Coast

I asked my Facebook friends what kind of overseas business they’d most like to run. The answer I heard most often was: “a bar.”

With the crisis in the Spanish property market, the price of businesses has also taken a tumble in Spain. Many people who took out second loans found themselves over-stretched. But the thing is, Europeans are still flocking to places like the Costa del Sol for vacations. And they have to eat and drink.

$251,000 buys a freehold bar and a 1,182-square-foot apartment in historic Ronda. The property is one of only two houses attached to the two existing turrets of the original Moorish castle walls, so plenty of tourists pass by.

Underneath the apartment, the bar opens onto an enclosed patio that’s actually within the original castle wall.

Leasehold bars with studio accommodation can be had for as little as $33,500. That’s what one on the front-line to the beach in Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol recently changed hands for. It was a 10-year renewable lease with a monthly rent of $1,548. But rent for backstreet bars can often be a third of that. For more information, see: www.spanishbars.com.

—Steenie Harvey

7. Small, Sustainable, and Eco-Friendly in Panama

Best described as a sleepy little fishing town, “Pedasi by the Sea” is clean and quiet, with extremely friendly locals and a small population of about less than 4,000. Here everyone knows everyone, but outsiders are welcome and made to feel at home. This is a place where the days go by slowly (and the people are never exactly in a hurry, either).

Pedasi has all the benefits of a rural setting close to the growing city of Chitre. Due to the excellent infrastructure and beaches, foreign visitors are discovering how much Pedasi has to offer. But there is still an unbelievable number of niches to fill. Flights to Pedasi were reinstated just recently. With the global economy recovering, now may be the perfect time to get here and beat the crowds.

Little dive shops and surf shops have popped up in and around Pedasi. Several outfits offer deep-sea fishing tours, too. But let’s face it, not everyone wants to spend their time avoiding the bends or sitting around waiting to sight a marlin.

There are not yet any tourism businesses there catering to the less-experienced or less-adventurous traveler. Small, sustainable, and eco-friendly is the name of the game here. Offer “take it easy” tours for small groups. Make a day of it, taking them somewhere fun and local for breakfast, then to one of the 11 nearby beaches. You can even ship them off to the “secret” island known as Iguana.

Come visit and you’ll see. You could cater to expat kids…show documentaries and organize book and movie swaps…even a smoothie stand would be welcome. The tropical blue sky’s the limit here.

—Jessica Ramesch

8. A Boutique Hotel in Brazil
The city of São Luiz is Northeast Brazil’s number-one colonial city by the sea. Located on a huge tropical island, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to more than 3,500 historic colonial buildings. But not enough of them can house tourists.

Founded by the French in 1612, São Luiz’s historic center still retains some of its French influence, reflected in the food, bakeries, and even a French cultural center with language classes. It also enjoys a rich African influence—particularly noticeable in the food and music.

As I strolled along one street, the smell of baking bread wafted from the French bakery, while a group of young people chatted animatedly in a small colonial-era café. In back of it all was a steady and alluring reggae beat from a street band…reminding me that this is the reggae capital of Brazil.

But one thing lacking in historic São Luiz is good hotel space. The boutique hotel we stayed in was booked solid, and it was the only one we could find in the district. What’s more, there are plenty of colonial buildings awaiting restoration (at low prices), and plenty of travelers year ‘round in need of classy accommodations.

—Lee Harrison, IL’s Latin America Editor

9. Plan Weddings in Romantic Italy

“Romantic Italy” has long been popular with foreign couples who want to tie the knot overseas. With good organizational skills, you could set yourself up as a wedding planner and arrange both civil and church ceremonies.

Rome and Florence…the Amalfi coast and Capri…the Italian Lakes and Venice. In truth, few places aren’t romantic in Italy. Many regions allow civil weddings to be held outdoors, so you aren’t limited by location.

Profits look enormous. It would be reasonable to charge around $1,200 for a basic town hall package—which only includes the marriage arrangements and paperwork. A photographer, flowers, accommodation and catering, etc. are extras—and the person putting this together no doubt adds on 10-20% for those.

You could build up an Internet home business from scratch, but making local contacts will take time. I recently came across a wedding planner business based at Lake Como being sold for €6,000/$7,740. Website…contacts…weddings already booked. For more information, see: www.businessesforsale.com.

—Steenie Harvey

10. Island Boat Tours on Brazil’s Itamaraca

Surrounded by wild tropical rivers and the shimmering-turquoise South Atlantic, the island of Itamaracá is a sunny and warm boater’s paradise. English-speaking tourists are coming in greater and greater numbers, but nobody is catering to them.

The eastern shore of the island boasts miles of sandy beaches, while the western shore is thick with mangroves and tropical wildlife. On the south, you’ll find the historic Fort Orange and the white sand beaches of a small, “boat-access” neighboring island. The wide, dazzling beaches of the north shore are sometimes impossible to reach by car…but are a beautiful and pleasant ride by boat.

So it seems natural that a boat-tour business would do well here…and in fact there are a number of boats in the business already. But what you won’t find is a boat captain or tour operator who speaks English.

Now, with more than 60 English-speaking homeowners on the island—and lots of traffic from the U.K., Europe, and North America—there will be an ever-increasing demand for a sunny day on the water. And with picnics to neighboring islands, mangrove tours, diving on the nearby reefs, and river excursions—just to name a few ideas—there’s plenty of opportunity for a boating entrepreneur.

—Lee Harrison

This article first appeared in International Living.

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First Published Mon, 2011-10-03 10:55

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