This article was originally published in the International Travel and Health Insurance Journal # 255, April 2022. Read it here.
Alejandro Alvarez, Senior Director at Americas Market Intelligence (AMI), and Alfredo Fernandez Vega, Latin America Manager for Cover-More Group, review four markets in the Americas that have distinct and correlated trends.
In this article, we discuss some of the key challenges and opportunities for travel insurance and assistance providers in Chile, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Uruguay. Although these countries are located in different parts of the continent, and have their own unique cultural preferences and economic environments, they share some interesting unifying frameworks.
Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina contain two-thirds of Latin America’s 650 million inhabitants and are perhaps the most noteworthy markets for travel insurance and assistance providers. But the other 14 Latin American countries also enjoy their own unique trends and opportunities.
A common trend in all countries is that the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have increased people’s awareness of travel insurance. In 2019, an Assist Card survey found that half of Latin American travellers had low awareness of travel insurance products, and that their greatest concerns were related to loss of documents, loss of luggage and flight cancellations. However, it seems that the pandemic has changed things: a June 2020 survey by Universal Assistance revealed that 88 per cent of travellers would purchase travel assistance, with health insurance being the most valued product.
Insurance requirements for travellers due to Covid-19
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, six of the 18 Latin American countries have enacted requirements for travellers to purchase and show proof of travel insurance. In addition, Ecuador and Venezuela already had this requirement in place before the pandemic (see table). In 2020 and 2021, these six countries accounted for 7.7 million of the 46.6 million visitors to the region.
In contrast, since 2016, Brazil required international travellers to show proof of insurance but eased this requirement in October 2020.
Even as many governments have made efforts to enact insurance requirements for inbound travellers, these countries’ insurance regulators do not tend to oversee travel insurance (with the notable exception of Brazil, where travel insurance is regulated as regular insurance by local authority Susep). In some cases, such as in Argentina and Chile, domestic insurance regulators publish insurance contract registries where insurers can publish the policies they sell.
These offerings take place within standard frameworks of consumer protection. Legislators in Argentina have debated regulating insurance products on three separate occasions since 2010, but to date no new laws have been passed. The initiatives debated have all shared the common goal of protecting consumers by ensuring they have enough information to make informed choices. In addition, Argentinian and Colombian experts have argued that as travel insurance contracts closely resemble domestic insurance contracts, insurance regulators should have authority over them.
Overall, regulations can be both a risk and an opportunity. Although they can further professionalise the activities of incumbent insurance and travel assistance operators, and increase public confidence in their operations, for prospective operators, they may represent an additional barrier to entry if they have to partner with a local insurer, or if there are added compliance costs.
Chile – outbound travel and insurance distribution channels
Currently, 74 per cent of Chileans actively use banking products, the highest rate in Latin America, and banks are a major travel insurance distribution channel, a rather unique trend in the region. Chileans rely on banks for most of their financial needs, and some of the largest banking institutions in the country (e.g., Bci, Santander, Banco Edwards) sell travel insurance directly to their customers. This provides the perfect opportunity for insurers to operate via affinity programmes.
In addition, many of the largest travel insurance providers in the region maintain an active presence in the country, including Assist Card, AXA, Universal Assistance, MAPFRE, and HDI, as well as several local providers.
The Chilean peso has historically been one of the strongest currencies in the region, and this was one of the reasons why Chileans were able to travel internationally. However, in 2021 it suffered an 11-per-cent depreciation against the US dollar, making it one of the four most devalued currencies in the region, together with the Argentinian peso, the Colombian peso, and the Peruvian sol. Uncertainty around the ongoing Constitutional Assembly may further devalue the currency and lead to a fall in Chile’s record number of 3.3 million outbound travellers in 2019.
Nevertheless, the country’s varied geography, ranging from forests to deserts to glaciers, its vibrant culture and cosmopolitan cities such as Santiago and Valparaiso, and its small town vibe in villages with a strong European ancestry, will ensure that it continues to be a popular destination for international travellers. For example, Valparaiso hosts the annual Viña del Mar Festival, the oldest and largest music festival in Latin America, which attracts 15,000 visitors every year, many of them from abroad. As Covid contagion rates drop and travel restrictions ease around the world, it is likely that the country will go back to inbound traveller numbers similar to the 4.5 million recorded in 2019.
Dominican Republic – insurance distribution and outbound travel
In 2018 and 2019, 7.6 and 7.5 million tourists visited the Dominican Republic, respectively. This number is equivalent to 73 per cent of the local population (10.5 million). The country was the second most visited in Latin America in 2019 after Mexico (45 million), ahead of countries with much higher populations such as Argentina and Brazil.
On average, tourism accounted for 16 per cent of the country’s GDP between 2009 and 2019, according to a July 2021 study by Banco Popular Dominicano and ASONAHORES. It is true to say that the importance of inbound tourism to the country’s economy cannot be understated.
However, the country had one of the lowest pre-pandemic rates of outbound travellers in the region. In 2019, just 500,000 people (five per cent of the population) travelled abroad. Because outbound travel is fundamentally important to travel insurance and assistance providers, few international operators serve the Dominican market. Universal Assistance and Assist Card do have a robust presence in the country, and other notable players include the Spanish multinational insurance company MAPFRE, which offers several tiers of service covering different user needs and profiles, and Promerica, a Central American banking conglomerate that offers rapid claim resolution.
A development opportunity exists for assistance providers looking to expand their networks in the country while keeping costs in-house as much as possible. Outside the capital city of Santo Domingo, it can be challenging to locate good quality local healthcare. Even in major resort destinations such as Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, the nearest facilities offering tertiary care and hospitalisation can be an hour or two away.
Peru – travel insurance popular as an add-on product
For several years, Peruvian business travellers were required to show proof of travel insurance when entering the Schengen Area. This helped drive awareness of its importance, something that was made even more evident by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the bulk of travel insurance sales are still focussed on an affluent niche. In addition, the volume of pre-pandemic inbound and outbound visitors has been low in recent years: in 2019, 4.4 million people visited and 3.3 million departed the country, less than 13 per cent and 10 per cent of the population, respectively.
Historically, travel agencies have accounted for a large proportion of travel insurance sales, and their bricks and mortar locations now compete with online providers such as aseguratuviaje.com and protegetuviaje.com. Recently, private health insurance providers (locally known as EPSs) have started offering travel insurance. There are currently four EPSs in Peru: Rimac, MAPFRE, Sanitas, and Pacífico.
Some of Peru’s banks have followed Chile’s example of selling travel insurance, and major financial institutions such as Interbank and Scotiabank are leading the pack.
Although Peru has world-class tourist destinations such as Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Nazca Lines, to name but a few, the local insurance industry has not developed accordingly. Product penetration is low and travel insurance is typically sold as an add-on to package tours, rather than as a standalone product.
Uruguay – high volumes of inbound tourists
Similar to the Dominican Republic, Uruguay has a high volume of inbound tourists as a proportion of its population. In fact, Uruguay has the region’s highest ratio, with one visitor for every inhabitant in 2018 and 2019. Although this is evidence of the country’s promise for inbound tourism, its local population is static.
Originally a small town, Punta del Este has become a unique travel resort. It is internationally recognised as a popular destination for the Latin and North American jet set, and is frequently compared with Monaco, the Hamptons, and St Tropez. Its affluent tourists demand high-quality services, from comprehensive insurance products to readily available specialised healthcare.
With five physicians per 1,000 people, Uruguay’s healthcare system is well-staffed and the country has become a destination for foreign medical professionals, according to AMI’s sister company and market research consultancy Global Health Intelligence. Uruguayan hospitals also make it easy for patients to get the medication they need, thanks to a government policy that provides free healthcare to low-income patients.
World-class institutions such as the Manuel Quintela Clinic and the British Hospital are within driving distance of major resort towns such as Punta del Este. This is in sharp contrast to other countries such as the Dominican Republic, where quality healthcare is not often available near tourist destinations.
However, Uruguay’s population growth rate is below the global average, and is lower than many of its Latin American neighbours. A low and stagnant birth rate of just under two births per woman, combined with a relatively high life expectancy of 70 for men and 76 for women, has created a disproportionately ageing population similar to countries in the global north. These conditions are not expected to improve in coming years, and population growth is set to stall by 2050. This makes it likely that travel insurance and assistance growth, as well as other industries, will stagnate, and operators will need to focus on improving their existing offer, rather than coming up with new products.
Latin America is a diverse region and each country has its own dynamic. Other than Universal Assistance and Assist Card, there are no regional health and travel insurance providers. Distribution channels vary widely, even in neighbouring countries. In Chile, banks play a pivotal role in people’s lives and offer all types of insurance, including travel insurance, while in its northern neighbour, Peru, travel agencies and private health providers play a dominant role in selling insurance products. Even in countries with similar travel indicators, service availability can vary widely. For example, although the Dominican Republic and Uruguay both have high traveller inflows, they have very different levels of assistance service availability close to their major tourist destinations.