MANAGUA, Nicaragua – The worst of last year’s global economic crisis may be over, but that’s no reason for Central America’s tourism leaders to forget the lessons learned from it, says Nicaraguan Tourism Minister Mario Salinas.
Central American integration, Salinas said, should be the key to developing tourism to its full potential in the years to come, just as it was instrumental in helping the region survive the crisis last year.
“We need to forget about our borders from the point of view of tourism,” Salinas told The Nica Times in a recent interview. “We need to integrate with more energy and support; we should follow the example of Europe.”
While a European-type union of Central American nations might be a ways off, the merits of tourism integration were proven during last year’s economic slump. Some wisely saw the crisis as an opportunity for needed change in the tourism industry.
“We needed to be knocked out of our complacency,” said Dionne Chamberlain, head of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, during last year’s Central American Travel Market conference in El Salvador. “We need to do things differently and look for alternative markets. This was the kick in the pants that we needed to revitalize the whole tourism industry.”
Many countries realized they didn’t have to look too far to find alternative markets. Central Americans, it turns out, also like to travel – both within their own countries and throughout the region.
Nicaragua has been rewarded for lifting its visa requirements on neighboring Costa Rica with a 25 percent increase in Tico tourists traveling to destinations such as Granada and Ometepe Island. And El Salvador experienced similar success by promoting itself in Guatemala and Honduras, resulting in a 24 percent increase in tourism visits during this year’s Semana Santa Easter Week vacation.
Guatemala also continues to promote domestic tourism with its program “Go on Vacation Without Leaving Your Country.”
But perhaps the greatest example of domestic-tourism success has been in Honduras. When the number of tourists traveling to Honduras plummeted by 70 percent in the wake of the June 2009 military coup, the country’s tourism sector – both public and private – began an aggressive and coordinated domestic-tourism campaign by offering 50 percent off hotels on Roatán Island.
The plan worked so well last year as a stopgap measure that it continued as a rainy-season incentive in 2010, according to Honduran Tourism Minister Nelly Jerez.
Jerez said the discount prices have given many Hondurans a chance to visit their famous white-sand beaches for a vacation that otherwise might have been too expensive to consider. And helping Hondurans get to know their own country better can have an additional promotional effect abroad.
“If you don’t know your own country, how are you going to sell it to others and tell people to come visit?” Jerez said.
More Must Be Done
While Central America’s experience with tourism integration has been mostly positive, much more needs to be done, according to Nicaragua’s Mario Salinas.
For integration to really advance to the next step, lingering suspicions and isolationist tendencies must change, he said.
“There is still a sense of competition among the countries of Central America – a belief that if tourism grows in one country, it will decrease in another. But I am not convinced of that,” Salinas said.
On the contrary, the Nicaraguan tourism minister stressed, integration could help lift all economies and project a more positive image of a united Central America.
Plus, he said, integration would help Central America develop common goals and plans, rather than every country pushing and pulling in different directions.
“Central America doesn’t have a common goal for tourism growth. How many tourists do we want by the year 2020? We don’t know. We need to have a goal and a plan, and the only way to do that is to integrate,” Salinas said.
Selling Across Borders
Salinas said the countries of Central America should stop eyeing one another as competitors and start looking at each other as partners in development.
For example, he said, if Costa Rica is interested in growing its tourism market to 5 million visitors annually, the country is going to have to integrate its tourism offering with Nicaragua’s to start promoting a greater package of destinations that includes Granada, the San Juan River and Ometepe Island.
“Costa Rica’s offering alone is not going to be sufficient; they need to start thinking about something different,” Salinas said. “If Costa Rica grows its tourism in a way (that includes Nicaragua), it means more tourism for them and for us, too.”
“And that’s how we grow as a region,” Salinas added. “We have to look at tourism 10 years down the road.”
The problem, he added, is that Costa Rica – and Central America in general – is not ready to make any giant steps toward integration.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Costa Rica wants to promote itself alone in the United States and won’t allow a Central American promotional campaign.”
Costa Rica, for its part, says it has different promotional techniques in different parts of the world. In European markets, Costa Rica has decided to promote itself as an integrated part of a multidestination region, as part of the Central America Tourism Agency in Spain.
But in the United States and South America, “where tourists don’t visit more than one country on their vacations, we continue to promote ourselves as a singular destination,” explained María Amalia Revelo, deputy director of the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT).
Revelo said varying standards of quality and sustainability pose a challenge to greater tourism integration in Central America. Different levels of citizen security are another major concern, she said.
The Costa Rican official said the ICT agrees that Central America needs to develop a more positive image, and she hopes the problems affecting the region’s image will improve.
“We hope that the current situations affecting the image will (sort themselves out) and allow us to explore together, in a sustainable way, the diverse tourism products we have as a region,” Revelo said, without identifying what “situations” Costa Rica thinks are problematic.
Nicaragua’s Salinas said he thinks Costa Rica fears it would tarnish its image by associating with neighboring countries. But he doesn’t think that’s a very progressive way of looking at the situation.
“Costa Rica should say to other Central American countries, ‘I have a good image in the United States, so take advantage of me – offer me more destinations and we’ll come up with a strategy to expand the (regional) tourism offering,’” Salinas said.
If Costa Rica were to take the lead in such an initiative, Salinas said, it would help project an entirely new image of Central America to the rest of the world – an image of unity and cooperation, which in turn would help tourism.
“We have to see things in a different light,” Salinas said. “We need to push integration so that everyone grows.”
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