First in a two-part series on Nicaragua’s tourism advantage in times of crisis
In Nicaragua, three months into the rainy season usually means few tourists. But not this year.
In the first five months of 2009, tourism in Nicaragua grew by 11 percent, even as most of the world experienced a downward trend.
Hard economic times are changing the way people travel – as confirmed by the World Tourism Organization, which registered an 8 percent dip in worldwide tourism during the first four months of 2009.
The report found the cost of traveling is a driving factor in changing tourism trends. Lilly Filipow, a property manager of Granada Rental Escapes, says last year foreigners “didn’t flinch” at paying $2,000 a month to rent a colonial home. But now many visitors want that same value at a lower price.
According to Filipow, there’s a new wave of tourists who usually vacation in more expensive destinations such as the Cayman Islands or Bermuda, but have “suddenly discovered Nicaragua.” These tourists, who are used to spending much more on their vacations, are thrilled about Nicaragua, she said.
Earlier this year, in an interview with The Nica Times, Tourism Minister Mario Salinas predicted that the global economic crisis could turn out to be an advantage for the tourism sector in Nicaragua, due to the country’s competitive prices, geographic location, safety and an abundance of natural attractions (NT, May 8). Half way through the year, Salinas’ prediction seems to be holding true.
On a recent weekend in July, Hotel Alhambra, Granada’s oldest and largest hotel, had all 56 rooms occupied, at $60 to $100 a night. Even tourists who have more disposable income are opting to travel to Nicaragua these days due to its relative affordability.
Sitting on the hotel’s veranda waiting to meet an old friend, Lynn Montgomery, a U.S. retiree from Texas, marvels at how affordable his morning has been so far – a shoe shine for 50 cents, six mangoes for 25 cents and a dozen bananas for 50 cents.
“That’s impressive,” said Montgomery, who was visiting town for a week to relax and meet Nicaraguan friends from previous trips.
Just in front of the hotel, Bryan Westbrook pushes a stroller through Granada’s Central Park along with his wife, their nine-month-hold baby and his parents. While the family came to the country for its surfing, Westbrook said what stood out most for him was “the vibe of the place.”
The 39-year-old businessman from Florida says his family wanted “a safe place to take our baby, so we don’t have look over our shoulders.”
In a time of economic hardship across Nicaragua, meanwhile, is increasingly playing host to Costa Ricans.
Juan B. Pasos, general manager of Granada’s Hotel Alhambra, says he has noticed an increasing number of Costa Rican tourists visiting town on the weekends ever since the Nicaraguan government eliminated a requirement for Costa Rican citizens to obtain a tourism visa last March.
A second government move to eliminate consular visas for all other foreign tourists has also helped Nicaragua position itself as a “country with open arms,” in the words of President Daniel Ortega.
Growing and Spreading
As tourism grows, it’s impact is also reaching more of the country.
Standing on the edge of a volcanic ridge, looking down into the incandescent glow of lava and breathing in the sulfuric fumes wafting from the Masaya Volcano’s Santiago Crater, a U.S. tourist jokes with her friend, “Are you ready to be sacrificed?”
Having just listened to their guide recite the unsettling history of the Volcano, considered by the area’s indigenous people to be the gates of hell and the site of virgin sacrifices, some people in the group cannot help but share a joke.
Adventure travel has also helped put Nicaragua on the world sightseeing map.
“We can go to the beach, we can go hike a volcano, we can explore a city – and we can do it on a student/freelancer budget,” said New York native Alexandra Friedman, 27.
Friedman and the rest of the tour group, led by Granada’s Nahual Tours, put on their protective construction helmets and with flashlights in hand descend into a dark lava tunnel. One woman’s voice can be heard in the dark, half-jokingly and half-worriedly calling the rocky terrain “perfect ankletwisting territory.”
In Lake Nicaragua, OmetepeIsland is another one of Nicaragua’s star tourism attractions making an international name for itself. The island is known as Nicaragua’s “Oasis of Peace.”
On a recent evening, a couple of Dutch tourists sat in the Comedor Santa Cruz, in the like-named town, hungry after a day of hard biking. For Willem de Vries, 22, it’s his fourth trip to Nicaragua since living here as a child. This time he has brought his girlfriend, friend and family members to show off the country he knows well.
As they wait for their food, the Dutch group chats about some of the cultural differences they’ve experienced. De Vries’ girlfriend, Keri Vos, laughs as she explains how she overheard a bus driver tell a passenger, “We’re allowed to be late, it’s Saturday.”
Maybe that’s why the group sits patiently for two hours waiting for their food, understanding that there’s only one cook in the kitchen. The wait gives the group more time to reflect on their trip and laugh over cold beers.
Nearby, at Albergue Ecológico El Porvenir, a hotel embedded in the surrounding farmland, two U.S. tourists share their experiences over a bottle of Nicaragua’s famous Flor de Caña rum.
Douglas Hawkinson, a 24-year-old writer from Minnesota, is interested in exploring Nicaragua to see what it’s like 20 years after the war. Hawkinson came to Nicaragua from Costa Rica and considers himself a bit of an anti-tourist, calling tourism a “virus” that has “devoured” countries like Costa Rica.
His drinking companion, a Colorado native heading south from El Salvador, shares some of Hawkinson’s views on tourism.
“Tourism will put a wall between you and the people faster than anything,” said Jill Munson, 32.
Despite their complaints, the travelers see the irony that it was tourism that made their paths cross on this isolated part of the world, allowing them to commiserate over rum.
Lucy Valenti, the president of the Nicaraguan National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), is well-aware of the need to strike a balance in Nicaragua’s tourism industry, which promoters say is striving for a “higher quality and less dense” development than in other countries.
She says Nicaragua is not following the example of Costa Rica, but is learning from the success and errors of many countries.
“Nicaragua is trying to develop the right model,” says Valenti. She says that means finding an “authentic tourism model” that keeps “our culture and our traditions, and takes advantage of the great potential of our resources.”
But for a country without resources to advertise, much of the tourism industry’s future depends on the experience that tourists have.
For each good experience, the likelihood increases that a tourist will recommend Nicaragua to someone else back home, or return themselves in the future, with an exponential word-of-mouth promotional effect.
And on the well-traveled paths between Granada, Ometepe and San Juan del Sur, tourists are already acting as promoters as they meet other travelers and pass on advice.
Next Week: Nicaragua’s bid to become a new retirement destination.