10/08/2013 12:56 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Tourists Are Everyday Ambassadors

There are precious few magic bullets in diplomacy. It is more art than science, and we know few people agree on art. But one thing I've learned over the years is that diplomacy is far too important to be left only to professional diplomats. In my experience, contact between ordinary people is the most effective way to introduce new cultures and ideas to one another.

That is why I believe tourism is an important tool in the diplomatic toolkit. Not only do tourists represent their own country and values when they travel, they also engage and are influenced by the people they meet, the places they see, and the sights, sounds, and flavors they experience. Most importantly, when people travel, the kind of trust and goodwill is developed that can shape politics between nations.

My own president fell in love with the United States when he visited as a young man. He speaks of this firsthand experience often, particularly when there are policy differences between our countries. This experience sustains him and reminds him of the goodness at the heart of America.

The new Premier of China also famously draws on his experience as a young visitor to the U.S. As a student, he lived with an ordinary family in Iowa and saw then the potential for cooperation between these two important countries.

Conversely, tourists rejected apartheid in South Africa, which helped pressure the government there to change its tune. This demonstrates the economic as well as the social power of tourism to transform the world.

For Ecuador, we seek tourists from the U.S for both purposes. We want to diversify our economy beyond petroleum, and our incredible beaches, Amazon rainforests, biodiversity in the Galapagos Islands, food and culture are among our best assets. When a country becomes overly dependent on oil, other important sectors can be neglected. We "take" from a finite resource rather than draw on the endless capacity for friendship and goodwill that can help drive our economy. So Ecuador has put tourism at the center of our economic and our diplomatic strategies. And we have put our money where our mouth is: we are investing more than $600 million in tourism promotion and infrastructure development over the next four years.

There is no substitute for direct experience when it comes to building friendship. Most people understandably formulate their ideas about another country through the Internet or the news media. But both of these mediums impose filters on information. Interest is sparked only during controversy, for example. The same goes for Internet research. Search engines tend to rank results by "newsworthiness." "Newsworthiness" is all too often determined by conflict and controversy.

I plan to beat the "canuca" (an drum of Ecuador's indigenous people) to promote greater tourism from the U.S. We want millions of people from the U.S. to discover for themselves what has already made Ecuador the number one foreign retirement destination for U.S. retirees: hospitality, warm, and beauty. We can deepen the well of friendship and someday close the oil wells.