MANAGUA – Leaders of the tourism sector launched several initiatives last week aimed at strengthening the country’s position as an ecotourism destination.
With the help of a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. government, the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), in partnership with several private nature reserves, released a line of informational products aimed at attracting more ecotourists: a glossy numbered map of the country with brief descriptions and photos of popular tourist destinations; two bird guides for the Private Montibelli Reserve and the Island of Ometepe; and a 2008 calendar featuring cultural and natural tourist sites.
For the next two years, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and U.S.D.A. Forest Agency will provide financial and technical support to promote environmentally friendly tourism in Nicaragua.
In a separate event Oct. 18, international conservation group Rainforest Alliance – also in conjunction with USAID – signed a new partnership with the Chamber of Small and Medium-sized Businesses (CANTUR) to promote sustainable eco-tourism in the departments of Matagalpa, Jinotega, León, Estelí, Ocotal, Managua, Masaya, Granada, Rivas and Río San Juan.
CANTUR represents 1,240 small businesses involved in the tourism service industry.
Under the new alliance with Rainforest Alliance, these businesses will receive education and technical training with the goal of becoming certified as “sustainable tourism businesses.”
CANTUR and Rainforest Alliance are also working to organize the country’s first National Sustainable Tourism Fair to be held sometime next year.
Going it Alone
The private-sector push to promote Nicaraguan tourism is noticeably unaccompanied by the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR), which has gone through three ministers in the past nine months and has all but ceased to promote the country despite the government’s identification of tourism as a priority for the nation’s economic development.
CANATUR president Lucy Valenti said the private sector used to depend on INTUR to promote tourism materials, but times have changed and the private sector now has resources it didn’t have before.
“We’re capable of producing it ourselves so now we’re not completely dependent on what INTUR can produce,” she said, referring to the new promotional materials unveiled last week. “Their budget has never been big enough for this kind of thing. That’s why we needed to make our own effort.”
Valenti said the private sector’s decision to work with the international community to launch the promotional project is not a reflection on INTUR’s recent problems.
“It’s important that the private sector takes these steps forward,” she said. “If we don’t contribute then we’re going to hold ourselves back.”
Project director Jerry Bauer said the group did collaborate with INTUR and some other government agencies on some technical aspects, such as studies and photo banks. But the promotion of tourism isn’t a job for government, he said.
“To have success we have to work with the private sector,” Bauer said. “Government has too many restrictions in production and sale of products. The problem is that there’s too much bureaucracy with any government. It’s no reflection on the current government at all. The inherent organization of any government is not to deal with this stuff. It can’t compete with private sector. That’s just not a function of the government.”
In the past, however, it was a function of government to promote tourism, and was considered a very profitable investment.
Last year the Nicaraguan government spent $1.2 million on tourism promotion, a strategy that included hiring a public relations firm in Miami.
María Nelly Rivas, then-minister of INTUR, told The Nica Times last year that Nicaragua, “Invests about $3 for every tourist we bring to Nicaragua, and on average each tourist spends about $75 while they are here.
So it’s a very profitable investment for Nicaragua. This has been a recognized internationally as an efficient way to use government budget.”
Still, Rivas noted back then, Nicaragua spends only a fraction of what neighboring countries in Central America spend on tourism promotion.
“If we want to surpass 1 million tourists, and if we want tourism to generate $1 billion like it is in Costa Rica, we have to invest more in promotion,” Rivas insisted (NT, Aug. 25, 2006).
Instead, a year later, INTUR’s promotional budget is all but frozen and the institution is in a state of flux, without any clear leadership or direction.
Until INTUR gets back on track, it will be up to the private sector to carry the banner. Those interested in buying maps, calendars or guides to sell can contact CANATUR at 278-9971.