The beaches of Argentina's Mar del Plata are eerily quiet this year

Mar del Plata (Argentina) (AFP) - They are few, tight-fisted and downcast. This year’s trickle of Argentine vacationers to a popular Atlantic beach resort is a dreary reflection of the country’s economic woes.

With annual inflation exceeding 200 percent and the prospect of further austerity under libertarian president Javier Milei, few can afford to let their hair down.

“One should be relaxed on vacation, not worrying. I don’t mean spending without limits, just not having to crunch the numbers all the time,” said beachgoer Julian Groppo, a 26-year-old architect who cut his usual 15-day trip to Mar del Plata down to five this year.

“It makes me sad, actually,” he lamented.

On one of the beaches, groups of children and adults play football on the golden sand.

In a normal year, this would be impossible between the tens of thousands of bathers gathered over vast stretches of beach in the town, some 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) south of the capital Buenos Aires.

Most years, between Christmas and February, the seaside resort receives six times more tourists than its 650,000 permanent residents.

This summer, occupancy was only at 60 percent in the first half of January, according to Mar Del Plata’s hotel association.

“Last summer, I did at least 30 trips a day. Now I’m happy if I get to 15,” sighed taxi driver Daniel Molina, one in a long line of idle cars awaiting customers near a bus stop.

- Slow-going -

With inflation at 211.4 percent in 2023, and Milei’s more than 50-percent devaluation of the peso in December, going on holiday has become a luxury for those who could previously afford it.

Maria Aprile, a young illustrator from Buenos Aires, said she was only able to come to Mar del Plata this year because she shared the fuel costs with three friends and was holidaying “in my grandmother’s apartment.”

“If not for this, clearly I would not have come.”

Many didn’t.

Restaurants are starved of clients as Argentine vacationers stay home

The minimum monthly wage – equivalent to $180 at the official exchange rate – has been awaiting an adjustment since December, falling ever further behind inflation.

A round bus trip from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata costs about $92 and a mid-range hotel close to $57 per night.

Valeria Pratto, a 45-year-old real estate agent, said she had not made “even a quarter” of her 2023 vacation rentals this year.

And Jose Maria Mendiola, who rents small tents for bathers to shelter from the sun, said he was only renting out 50 to 60 percent of those available.

- Another country -

Guido Salvaterra, who migrates from the capital every summer to sell grilled corn – a favorite Argentine beach snack – said he was used to families buying one ear per person, at about $3.50 apiece.

“Now they all share one” ear.

Resort manager Paul Etcheverry told AFP vacationers this year were “angry.”

Even traffic at Mar del Plata is unusually calm as Argentines forego vacation

“They don’t come as long, they bring their own food, drinks, and don’t go to restaurants as much.”

Last week, Argentina’s informal exchange rate reached a record of 1,225 pesos against the US dollar. The official rate is 868.8 pesos.

And inflation has caused a more than 20 percent drop in wages since December, according to Argentina’s CTA trade union federation.

“Two months ago (Argentina) was one country. Today it is another,” said the tent renter, Mendiola.

Milei, who ran for the presidency with promises to slash public spending, has cut subsidies of fuel and transport since he took office in December in a country with poverty levels at 40 percent.

He has warned the country is on the brink of hyperinflation, and that things will get a lot worse before they get better.