SANTIAGO, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Shopping bags in hand, Silvia Lopez enthusiastically surveys the racks of children’s clothes in the Costanera Center, Chile’s largest mall, seeking Christmas presents for her grandchildren.
Like thousands of her compatriots, the pensioner from Argentina has traveled to Santiago’s well-stocked shopping centers to search for bargains.
In the year to October, some 2.3 million Argentines entered Chile, up 55 percent from the same period last year, according to statistics from the tourist board. Many come to shop.
In the first nine months of 2016, they spent $651 million in Chile, representing about a third of the country’s total tourist income.
The influx reflects an advantageous exchange rate but also how the economies of the two South American neighbors have diverged in recent years.
While Chile has one of the most open economies in the world, with well-known retailers from the United States and Europe filling its malls, Argentina saw international companies leave under tough protectionist measures in recent years.
A year ago, business-friendly President Mauricio Macri was elected, promising change in Argentina. One immediate effect has been an often less stringent enforcement of strict customs rules at airports, which makes it easier for shoppers re-entering the country to bring in goods purchased abroad.
The phenomenon recalls the 1990s, when Argentine shoppers to Florida were known as the “deme dos” - Spanish for “I’ll take two.”
“It’s like a second Miami, that’s what we’re saying,” Lopez said. “Among friends and family we are sharing information about coming over.”
An LED television that costs some 12,000 Argentine pesos ($750) in Buenos Aires retails in Santiago for as little as 5,000 pesos.
“The Argentines buy in quantity, some of them arrive with enormous empty suitcases at the mall before it opens,” said Maria Jose Martinez, marketing head at the Costanera Center, owned by Chilean retailer Cencosud.
More than 70 percent of visitors who sign up for the mall’s tourist discount plan are from Argentina, she said.
Chile’s natural attractions are a big draw for many people, such as law student Viviana Bianco, who came to see the Atacama Desert. But still she found it hard to resist the bargains.
“If it’s half the price, we’re going to end up shopping,” she said. ($1 = 16.0000 Argentine pesos) (Reporting by Fabian Cambero in Santiago; Additional reporting by Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires; Writing by Rosalba O‘Brien; Editing by Bill Trott and Lisa Shumaker)