BIG CORNISLAND – Mike Brouwer’s dreams were interrupted by the stink of burning diesel.
Awakened from his sleep, he crawled out of his bed and out into the Caribbean breeze that blew against the candlelit beachfront property that he had recently bought with a partner.
“I went outside, and there was a huge fireball coming straight at me. It was coming straight into the beach,” the Dutch investor recalled of that strange night two years ago. Fishermen were jumping ship and swimming to shore, he remembers.
Lucky for Brouwer, the fishing boat that had caught fire after crashing into the coral reef came to rest about 100 meters from his slice of beachfront to become the latest mangled boat-wreck festooning the island’s white-sand shores.
In the same bizarre way Nicaragua’s shipwrecked history has become a sort of tourist attraction. That flaming disaster has since become an easy swim out for snorkelers to behold rich Caribbean marine life that’s taken home in its hull.
“It is now a great attraction for snorkeling,” Brouwer said.
Golf cart tours, dolphin-watching boat trips and waterskiing have also been added to the list of outdoor activities on this paradisiacal pair of Corn Islands where, not long ago, there wasn’t much more to do than cast a fishing line into the sea or read under a tree.
An hour-and-a-half plane ride from Managua, Big and Little Corn Island are a far cry from Nicaragua’s populous Pacific basin. Islanders speak a slow-paced mix of the Creole English, Spanish and Miskito.
Reggae vibes and the sweet smell of baking coconut bread fill the humid air.
But the islands’ tourism and real estate markets are starting to break away from the lazy island rhythm and move more like the boats that speed across the islands’ waters with loads of drugs headed north. Many here say the influx of foreign tourists could bring big change to the quiet beachfronts on Big and even Little Corn Island, a little-dippershaped piece of land that still has no roads.
Tourism providers say this was the first year that there was no low-season dip in tourists, as there normally is between January and April. And according to statistics from La Costeña, one of two national airlines that fly to Big Corn from Managua, about 10,000 passengers flew to the island in the first quarter of 2008, about a 20 percent increase from the same period last year.
“Part of it is value. It is still cheaper to come to Nicaragua than to a lot of other places, and when you compare costs of Corn Island to other Caribbean destinations, you find that it is quite reasonable and very beautiful,” said Julio Caballero, director of La Costeña airlines.
Tourism insiders say the industry will be key to stabilizing an economy that fluctuates with the volatile fishing and lobster industries.
“The island has to maintain some income, and if fishing goes down, you have to find another knob to turn on,” said Brouwer, who is also the owner of the Le Paraiso Club hotel on Big Corn and founder of the island’s fledgling tourism chamber.
The islands’ $20 million annual lobster export industry has taken blows from high gas prices and an increasing number of lobster divers pulling from the same ocean floor; boats must now go farther out to sea to fill their traps (NT, June 27). Next year, the seasonal March-July lobster ban will likely be extended to four months, according to Fabio Robelo, the manager of Central American Fisheries, one of two major seafood processors on the island.
The most viable alternative source of income so far has been drug trafficking, but island real estate insiders said the way property is moving here, narcotics won’t be the
second biggest industry for long. Island real estate broker Peter Imnof said beachfront property prices have more than doubled over the past two years, and about half of the beach property is now in the hands of foreigners and “mainlanders.”
Though the estimated 250 workers that the tourism employs on the islands may be a tiny workforce compared to the thousands of subsistence and commercial fishermen and lobster divers on BigCornIsland, home to 10,000, the tourism jobs are value-added, says Brouwer. As part of a new program offered by the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR), tourism professionals are going to the island to train waiters, bartenders and cooks for week-long sessions.
Brouwer’s tourism chamber also dedicates a slice of profits toward trash clean-up and education. With help from Dutch financiers, he is now in the process of building his second and third school on BigCornIsland.
Island Crack Down
Big CornIsland police supervisor Reinaldo Davila said drug activity on the islands has slowed in recent months, thanks largely to help from the national police to beef up drug enforcement on the islands, where there usually aren’t more than a dozen cops on duty at a time.
He said Managua has been sending drug cops to the islands to carry out intelligence-based operations. In April, he said, 70 National Police officers from Managua came to the island and raided a series of homes in an operation with local cops.
“Drug problems have been low enough recently,” he said. “It has to be because Managua has been making its presence felt here.”
Nicaraguan authorities seized two more drug boats near BigCornIsland in May, suggesting that drug smugglers are still using the Caribbean route.
Security hasn’t been the only public concern for tourism businesses like Brouwers’.
Though the island’s electricity situation has seen some improvements in recent years – it wasn’t until 2007 that the BigCornIsland got 24-hour electricity – the system still has problems. Blackouts are still common.
At the beginning of June, the island received three new 600-kilowatt generators which are expected to improve the electricity situation, according to Brouwer.
Brouwer said the logistics of getting supplies to the island presents another business hurdle, and getting tourists here is costly – round-trip flights from Managua cost $164.
But once you get here, tourists can get homecooked Rondon, a local Caribbean-style seafood stew, for $5, or a lobster dinner for $10.
It’s also considered one of the least expensive places in the world to get an international scuba diver’s license, starting at around $300.
And for those looking to get away from the bustle of civilization, or even the ritziness of upscale resort destinations, the CornIslands’ sun-bathed beaches and crystal-blue waters are priceless.
On a recent afternoon, Brouwer sat in the shade of his thatch-roofed restaurant, a stone’s throw from white-sand beach where a boat full of men set lobster traps in the coral reef and contemplated the island’s laid-back atmosphere.
“The big island has 30 beaches,” he said. “And only two are developed.”