MANAGUA, Nicaragua – As 2009 fades in the rearview mirror like a dangerous intersection that almost left Central America in a seven-car pileup, tourism operators are breathing a sigh of relief and once again focusing on the road ahead.
Still, the slippery conditions of last year have given many weary tourism drivers new respect for the blind curves that lie ahead. Central America’s tourism industry, though still in running condition, received a couple of dents last year from the H1N1 swine flu epidemic, the world economic crisis and the military coup in Honduras.
Many potential tourists either were too scared to travel last year or didn’t have the money to go anywhere.
Even the region’s most established tourism market, Costa Rica, reported an 8 percent drop in visitors last year, following years of continuous and steady growth that appeared to be an irreversible trend.
A year later, the conditions are improving. While U.S. economists debate whether the recession is over or on the verge of a double dip, the early returns on Central America’s 2010 tourism numbers show that recovery here is clearly under way.
“Indicators show a definite recovery after the world economic crisis,” Costa Rican Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides said in a July press release.
Costa Rica registered a 9.6 percent increase in tourism arrivals in the first half of the year.
The rebound, Benavides noted, has been better than many experts predicted. Costa Rica’s tourism recovery is two to three times stronger than the forecasts from both the World Tourism Organization and Costa Rica’s National Tourism Chamber, which predicted a more modest 3 to 5 percent growth this year.
Benavides said Costa Rica expects to climb back above the 2 million annual visitor mark by the end of 2010, after slipping below that plateau last year. By 2014, Costa Rica hopes to attract 2.5 million tourists a year.
Costa Rica is not the only country striving to meet new goals. In neighboring Nicaragua, where the tourism industry got a later start and is far less advanced, the industry is expected to reach the 1 million annual visitor mark for the first time this year.
So far, the number of tourists visiting Nicaragua in 2010 is up 9.6 percent from last year, and Nicaragua was one of the few countries that had a growth year in 2009, bucking the global trend during a worldwide downturn. Tourism, the main motor of Nicaragua’s economy, also continues to attract new investment, which is up by a robust 11.8 percent this year.
And the best news for Nicaragua’s tourism industry has just begun. “Survivor: Nicaragua,” the latest installment of the Emmy-award-winning U.S. reality TV program on CBS, began airing Sept. 15, giving Nicaragua a level of pop-culture exposure it has never before experienced.
The program broadcasts lush, tropical images of Nicaragua into the homes of 13 million U.S. households every Wednesday night during TV prime time, reaching a massive audience of people who probably have never considered Nicaragua as a tourism destination. In between episodes, the show generates more buzz in the form of hundreds of weekly articles in international news and gossip publications, helping to depoliticize Nicaragua’s image.
The prime-time exposure is expected to be exponentially greater than any public-relations campaign Nicaragua could manage on its own. The country has a paltry $2 million annual promotional budget, about 10 percent of what several other countries in Central America spend on publicity each year.
“We don’t have the resources to even pay for one TV ad that would reach that kind of audience,” said Javier Chamorro, executive director of investment promotion agency ProNicaragua.
Leisa Francis, co-executive producer of “Survivor,” said the 14-week series is like a “video postcard” of Nicaragua that has “extraordinary” promotional value.
Farther south, Panama, which reported a 4.3 percent growth in tourism during the first half of 2010, is also generating some important international buzz from its nascent hotel boom, which has attracted some of the biggest names in the industry.
The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower, the largest building in Latin America, is scheduled to be inaugurated in Panama City early next year by famed international real estate tycoon Donald Trump. And Central America’s first Westin Hotel and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino are scheduled to open in Panama in 2012.
“We feel this ideal Latin American location will be of interest to our growing clientele, and foresee this as a strategic business adventure reflective of Panama’s developing tourism sector,” said Hamish Dodds, president and CEO of Hard Rock International, in a press release.
In northern Central America, Guatemala reports an 11.7 percent growth in tourism during the first half of 2010, with tourism investment totaling $788 million during the first six months of the year, up 12.4 percent from the same period in 2009.
Belize is also reporting a recovery this year, after suffering a 9.6 percent drop in tourism in 2009.
“The global economic crisis sparked a natural change in tourists’ travel habits, and this was seen throughout Central America’s entire tourism industry,” said Shakira Tsai, director of marketing and public relations for the Belize Tourism Board. “However, we’re pleased to report that the Belizean tourism industry not only survived this global storm, but continues to see a steady flow of traffic from our international travelers.”
But the most dramatic tourism recovery in Central America is occurring in Honduras, the country that dipped the lowest in 2009.
After a crippling 70 percent decline in tourism arrivals in the months following the military ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, the Honduran tourism industry shouldered forward into 2010 and is now showing strong signs of recovery, thanks to a 91 percent increase in cruise ship arrivals.
The challenge now, according to Honduran Tourism Minister Nelly Jerez, is to build on that momentum to expand tourism throughout the country.
“We are not trying to reposition ourselves in the world of tourism, (but) rather position ourselves,” Jerez told The Nica Times during an interview earlier this year (NT, Aug. 6). “Honduras has never really been considered a tourism destination, aside from Roatán Island and the Copán ruins. Those are our two tourism poles, but the rest of Honduras has been relegated.”
Looking forward, she said, Honduras is expecting a big boost from the Bahía de Tela project, a $1 billion complex with five-star hotels, spas and championship golf. The project, which has been in a slow planning stage for 34 years, is finally coming out of the starting blocks. The cornerstone of the first hotel, which is scheduled to open in 2012, will be laid in the coming weeks, Jerez said.
“This is the most important project we have,” Jerez said of the tourism complex, which was once expected to rival Cancún, Mexico. “It’s a priority.”
Jerez is also planning ahead to 2012 – the same year the Maya Long Count calendar ends. While some doomsday prophets are predicting the ominous date will bring about the apocalypse in the form of a massive meteor strike or a reverse of the Earth’s magnetic field, in the meantime it’s become a handy marketing tool to promote Central America’s Maya 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 Maya civilization,” Jerez said.
And compared to the political and economic events of last year, the apocalypse doesn’t seem so scary anymore. Indeed, with the worst of the ’09 economic crisis behind, the “end of times” may just provide the new beginning that Central America’s tourism industry has been waiting for.