TEGUCIGALPA – After registering a whopping 91 percent increase in the number of cruise-ship passengers visiting Honduras during the first half of 2010, tourism officials are optimistic that the country is once again on the road – or in the shipping lane, as the case may be – to recovery following a disastrous 2009.
Honduran Tourism Minister Nelly Jerez announced last week that 191,853 more cruise-ship tourists have arrived to Honduras this year than during the first semester of 2009. And that’s before the arrival of the really big cruise ships.
On July 27, the Epic – the largest ship in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet, and the second largest cruise ship in the world – docked off Honduras’s RoatánIsland, bringing an additional 6,000 passengers to the country’s picturesque BayIslands. And at the end of the year, Royal Caribbean’s monstrous Oasis of the Seas, a 15-deck cruise ship with the capacity for 8,000 guests and crew, will also be visiting Honduras for the first time.
The tourism ministry’s numbers show that 162 cruise ships carrying some 402,000 passengers have visited RoatánIsland during the first half of this year. Each passenger that gets off the boat to tour the island or scuba dive on its world famous reef spends an average of $100 during their brief stay on the island, according to the tourism ministry.
“We are very content with the first semester numbers because they indicate that we are on the right path,” Jerez said.
That is good news for Honduras, given that last year tourism numbers and every other political, social and economic indicator showed the country was on the wrong path.
In many ways, 2009 hit Honduras’ nascent tourism industry like a perfect storm, following a promising 9 percent growth in 2008, which netted $80 million in tourism earnings for the country’s impoverished economy. But in 2009, the global economic crisis, the H1N1 flu epidemic and Honduras’ violent coup in June conspired as a three-pitch strikeout against the country’s tourism sector, which plummeted 70 percent during the second half of the year, contributing to the country’s economic setback.
Now under the new political management of President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, Honduras is trying to pull itself up again. And it’s leaning heavily on the tourism industry to get back on its feet.
In some ways, it’s a chance for Honduras to build an industry that it never really had to begin with, said Minister Jerez.
“We are not trying to reposition ourselves in the world, rather position ourselves,” Jerez told The Nica Times in a recent interview in her Tegucigalpa office.
“Honduras has never really been considered a tourism destination, aside from Roatán and the Copán Ruins. Those are our two tourism poles, but the rest of Honduras has been relegated.”
So the idea now, Jerez said, is to piggyback on the established attractions of Roatán and Copán to promote the interior of the country as an undiscovered destination for cultural and eco-tourism.
“One of the goals of the Lobo administration is to promote national identity through tourism,” Jerez said.
Tourism authorities are also working closely with the private sector to promote internal tourism – something that started last year as an emergency strategy in response to the dramatic decrease in foreign visitors following the coup.
Fifty-percent discounts on Roatán resorts for Honduran tourists have continued into this year’s rainy season, giving many locals a chance to visit their famous white-sand beaches for a vacation that would otherwise be too expensive for many to consider.
Jerez said the idea is to have Hondurans become familiar with their own country, which will help them promote it as a tourism destination for others to visit.
“If you don’t know your own country, how are you going to sell it to others and tell people to come visit?” she said. “We want Hondurans to have more contact with their own country, so that they can love and appreciate it.”
Tourism boosters also want Hondurans to explore the interior of their country. Jerez said the government is working with Spanish aid agencies to help develop the tourism offering in the rural northwestern department of Lempira, which has jungle-covered-mountains and thermal springs perfect for eco-tourism projects.
The Cancun That Never Was
Honduras is also moving forward on the massive Bahia de Tela project, a $1 billion initiative to build the most ambitious tourism development in Central America. Private investors own 51 percent of the project, and 49 percent is owned by the government. Bahia de Tela will cover 312 hectares of prime north-coast real estate. The first phase calls for two five-star hotels and an 18-hole championship golf course.
“This project has been in the works for nearly 34 years; it started at the same time as Cancun, Mexico, but Cancun developed and Bahia de Tela remained on standby,” Jerez said.
However, she added, it’s now moving forward again. The cornerstone to the first boutique hotel is expected to be placed in the coming weeks, and the first hotel should be open by 2012.
“This is the most important project we have; it’s a priority,” Jerez said.
The End is Near
The year 2012 promises to be a big one for Honduras in several ways.
In addition to completing the first phase of Bahia de Tela project, Honduras will also host the Central American Travel Market, the region’s largest tourism trade show.
But most importantly, 2012 marks the end of the Mayan Calendar – an even that Honduras hopes to promote with special offers to visit the Copán Ruins.
“We are planning great events; we want to organize trips and bring artists and have concerts there to promote the splendor that was Copán, the metropolis of the Mayan civilization,” Jerez said.
If all goes according to plan, the end of the Mayan Calendar could also be a rebirth of sorts for Honduras’ tourism industry.