International tourism has reached Central America. And cultural-heritage tourism (archaeological sites, historic buildings, museums, and living cultures) has become a target of economic opportunity for government planners.
The reasoning is simple: the sites, buildings and villages already exist. It is just a matter of putting in a few trails, a bit of signage, restrooms, minimal food services, and then collecting the entrance fees.
Nicaragua is no different from other countries in that it has a richness of potential attractions, none adequately developed, and all subject to rapid or gradual destruction in the absence of careful planning and controlled access.
The residual benefits flow to the hotels and restaurants in the cities, and to the airlines that transport the visitors to the country.
The cultural attractions, it is thought, are largely self-maintaining and require no additional investment.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Careful government planning, private sector investment, and local community involvement are all essential for successful cultural-heritage tourism.
Cultural-heritage tourism is the residual from cultural heritage preservation. It requires the support of the public and private sectors.
There are models from more developed countries, two of which are Stewardship and Passport in Time.
Under the Stewardship model, local community groups take responsibility for protecting and maintaining community or regional cultural resources.
In the Passport-in-Time model, groups of lawyers, doctors and other professionals who have limited time to devote to community affairs dedicate two or three weekends a year to the maintenance of local cultural sites (for example, painting, cleaning up grounds, and building or staffing visitor facilities).
If we try to do something with all of these areas, however, we will do nothing well with any of them. Ease of access, existing infrastructure, and presence of a local labor force that can be trained for tourism positions might be considered beginning criteria for the top of the priority list.
Ministries and central governments must also guarantee that some percentage of the entrance fees to the cultural-heritage attractions flows back to improved facilities, better salaries, additional training and better self guided interpretation aids.
Unfortunately, the tendency is for museum and other entrance fees to flow into the black hole of a central-government fund, never to benefit the cultural attraction.
Cultural heritage sites must also balance their limited presentations to widely disparate audiences: local school children and sophisticated international tourists – few of whom, especially if arriving from North America, will speak or understand Spanish.
Since many cultural attractions have a scaled set of entrance fees, with foreign tourists paying more, it seems only proper to enhance the linguistic access to the interpretative information about the site or exhibitions for these visitors.
Europeans and North Americans are more accustomed to self-guided tours, wandering, stopping, listening to a recorded guidebook, sitting on a bench and contemplating a sculpture or set of ceramic pots, etc.
In Nicaragua, the tendency has been to emphasize controlled and guided tours, in part because in many facilities such as the NationalMuseum, the exhibition halls, offices and storage areas are not physically separated, and there are security concerns.
Gangs are growing and spreading their violent activities across the landscape, including cultural-heritage sites.
Even prior to the gang phenomenon, many petty thieves and delinquents of all ages saw airplanes full of tourists with cameras, money, iPods and laptops as something akin to Santa Claus’ sleigh.
Governments that plan to benefit from cultural tourism must provide the cocoon of safety for the often innocent tourist. On the other side of the coin, tour operators must inform their clients of the real dangers, such as they are, and not encourage reckless behavior.
Finally, in North America and Europe, many once-private collections are now in public institutions, or even if still private, are in venues open for public visitation.
In Latin America, for the most part, curators and directors have had to sell pieces from the collection when the government failed to pay their salaries, confiscated private collections have been re-sold to foreign diplomats and on international markets by government officials. Next-generation heirs are unable to locate the items that were donated in years past by their parents and grandparents.
If a nation’s rich cultural heritage is to be shared with international visitors, whether Pre-Columbian statues, historic manuscripts or paintings by famous local artists, the security for those objects in public institutions must be guaranteed.
Likewise, the private collector whose collection is in compliance with the law must be allowed to charge a reasonable fee to the public and to be sure that the cultural police will not confiscate the collection.
Nicaragua has a rich cultural heritage to share with the world. It is imperative that the public and private sectors come together to preserve and promote these resources.
They cannot be allowed to fall victim to the same fate as many of the country’s natural resources, which have been dissipated by unscrupulous generals and politicians, while helpless disempowered communities stand by.
Frederick W. Lange is an anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has served as an advisor to the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture.