By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost four months after a devastating earthquake hit Ecuador, a leading government minister has appealed to tourists to return to the financially-struggling Andean country.
Nearly 700 people were killed and about 6,200 injured on April 16 in the strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador in almost four decades, leaving about 8,650 people living in government shelters, according to government figures.
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Maria Duarte, Ecuador's Minister of Urban Development and Housing, said she was "totally" optimistic about the pace of reconstruction with the repair or rebuilding of 26,000 homes in the works or planned.
Longer term she said the government had to improve the construction of buildings in Ecuador which is prone to earthquakes. Two tremors struck the northwest coast again in May, leading to one death in the same region as the April quake.
But for now she appealed to tourists to return to Ecuador to help put the country back on track.
"We have several types of victims, not all are victims due to the destruction of their homes," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a interview during a visit to New York City.
"There are people who remain without jobs and whose only form of sustenance was tourism, which momentarily is nonexistent."
The strongest quake in Ecuador since 1979 has tested the country's resilience at a time of economic difficulties due to low oil prices in this small member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Some $3.3 billion will be required to rebuild affected areas, according to authorities.
President Rafael Correa has announced a raft of measures to finance the emergency with funding sources ranging from loans from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral lenders to plans to sell assets and increase some taxes.
But he also described many ill-built constructions in Ecuador as "death traps" built as such to "save a few pennies" and has urged residents to push mayors to enforce construction standards.
Duarte said municipal building requirements were rarely respected or enforced in remote areas of the country and in the disaster's aftermath more than 60,000 inspections of buildings and other structures had been conducted.
"There is a weakness at the municipal level," she said in the interview that was conducted in Spanish on Friday.
"One of the great ... challenges and the great goals that we need is much, much more control over construction."
The hardest-hit areas, the coastal provinces of Manabi and Esmeraldas, are tourist hubs whose beach towns fuel Ecuador's vital tourism industry, Duarte said.
Some 1.5 million foreign vacationers flocked to Ecuador last year, contributing $1.7 billion dollars to the nation's otherwise largely oil and export-dependent economy.
But that source of income is now at risk, Duarte said, with the government only releasing economic data for the first quarter of the year so far.
The central bank has said it will need to revise its full-year projections for 2016 economic growth as a result of the tremor, but has not yet provided an updated figure.
"Despite all the efforts we are making, there are certain regions that haven't recovered," said Duarte who was in New York to plan Habitat III, a U.N. conference on cities to be held in October in Quito.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)