San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nicaragua Stakes Claim to River Tourism

SAN CARLOS – After years of sitting lazily on the banks of the Río San Juan, watching the water flow by like a missed opportunity, the Nicaraguan government is finally casting a net into its own waters in an attempt to catch some of the tourism profits that have until now been Costa Rica’s.

 “We Nicaraguans are aware of the tourism development that Costa Rica has, and we want those tourists to come to the Río San Juan,” said Francisco Ochomogo, regional coordinator for the Sandinista government’s “Route of Water” tourism development and promotion plan for the San Juan River.

“We don’t want to be egotistical, but we have to say it: ‘We have better things here than in Costa Rica’,” Ochomogo told The Nica Times. “We want people from there to come here. But we are also aware that this should be a shared effort with Costa Rica because we have a common border.”

Since President Daniel Ortega took office in 2007, the Sandinista government has made the 238-kilometer San Juan River, which forms part of Nicaragua’s southern border with Costa Rica, a centerpiece in its program for sustainable tourism.

The government’s Route of Water program, which is operating in conjunction with the dredging operation on the last 22 kilometers of the river, secured a $14.7 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank in 2007 to build tourism infrastructure, provide small business loans, and offer tourism-industry training.

The government also obtained a $90 million loan to build the 120-kilometer Acoyapa-San Carlos Highway, which, when completed next year, will shorten the driving time from Managua to Río San Juan from 12 hours to five.

San Juan Norte

The Río San Juan remains under dispute.

Tim Rogers

Though the multifaceted development and river-dredging plan is just getting started, it has already had a dramatic impact on the towns of San Carlos and San Juan de Nicaragua, as well as smaller populations in the riverside communities in between.

“San Carlos used to be a forgotten place, like something out of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. But it has been improved 100 percent,” said longtime river resident Yaro Ch-Praslin, owner of the nearby Sabalos Lodge.

Ch-Praslin added, “It still needs to be improved another 100 percent, but without a doubt there have been substantial advances made.”

Tourists, though still few in number, have also noted the improvements.

From 2007 to 2009, tourism on the Río San Juan grew by 41 percent, totaling 10,600 visitors last year. Through the first 10 months of 2010, tourism on the river increased by another 21 percent from the same period last year, according to Tourism Minister Mario Salinas.

Among the visible benefits of investment from the “Route of Water” program are: five new immigration offices along the river, two new tourism information centers, six new piers, a new malecón boardwalk in San Carlos, improvements to the San Carlos airport, the cleaning of historic cemeteries in Old Greytown, a $500,000 investment in small business loans, and tourism-training courses for 358 people, according to the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute.

Next month, construction on a $9.8 million international airport is scheduled to get under way in the Caribbean river-port town of San Juan de Nicaragua (see separate story, Page N1).

And that’s not all. In January, a Japanese construction firm is scheduled to start construction on a vehicle bridge over the San Juan River into Costa Rica. The bridge, which will connect to the soon-to-be-completed Acoyapa-San Carlos Highway, 12 kilometers east of Lake Cocibolca, will in effect open a second “Pan-American Highway” connection between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

The massive amounts of investment and development along this historically neglected jungle river has prompted some skeptics to question the government’s true motives.

Several have asked if the Sandinistas’ interest in the river is really just about tourism, or a clue that something else going on.

What’s the Plan, Dan?

The border conflict with Costa Rica has also increased suspicions and conspiracy theories that larger, geopolitical forces are at play, representing murky plans that have yet to be revealed.

Skeptics claim the Sandinistas’ interest in the Río San Juan is based on economic and political interests that go well beyond sustainable tourism development.  Some speculate that Ortega’s real plan is to develop the groundwork for a future interoceanic canal project, which the president has been talking about for years. Others claim Ortega’s interest in the river could be an early effort to build an oil pipeline to the new Venezuelan-funded refinery under construction in León.

Still others point to Brazil’s recent involvement in the Route of Water – a generous $330,000 donation to fund a “strategic development plan for the Río San Juan” – as indication that foreign players are using the guise of tourism to advance other economic plans. Brazil is also studying plans to build the massive Brito hydroelectric plant, a proposed 250-megawatt project that would use waters from the Río San Juan.

Ochomogo, however, wants to believe that the government he represents has pure intentions to develop tourism and protect the environment, as administration authorities claim.

“The greatest potential for the Río San Juan, with all its beauty and nature, is for tourism. We have to bet on tourism,” Ochomogo said.

“It is true that they also talk of an inter-oceanic canal, but what is a canal going to mean in a zone that is a protected area?” he said. “And what would the Brito power plant mean for the environment? What good would all the work be that we have done to get ready for tourism?”

Javier Chamorro, executive director of the official investment-promotion agency ProNicaragua, said Nicaragua’s first developmental priority on the Río San Juan is to ensure “the environmental protection of the river.”

He said the dredging of the river delta is being done so Nicaragua can recover the use of its water with minimal environmental impact.

Chamorro downplays suspicions that the dredging operation is a first step toward transforming the river into an interoceanic canal – a mega-project that he said is “not feasible right now.”

He said the dredging operation is meant only to clean the river delta to allow for smaller tourism crafts to gain ocean access to the river and lake on the Nicaraguan side of the border.  Opening a passage to bigger container ships or tankers would require a much   larger-scale dredging operation along the entire river, not just the delta, he said.

Though Chamorro refutes the idea that a hydroelectric plant would threaten tourism interests, he said the Brito project is still in the early phases of conducting studies on economic feasibility and environmental impact. Those studies aren’t expected to be concluded for at least another six months.

In the meantime, Ochomogo said, plans for tourism development on the river will continue to move forward optimistically.

Tourism, he said, is the Sandinistas’ plan to finally assert Nicaragua’s sovereignty over the Río San Juan.

“Sovereignty is not just about saying that the territory is mine and I don’t want anyone else on it; sovereignty is creating the conditions for people to have education, health and the ability to develop economically,” he said. “And never before on the Río San Juan has the government invested so much.”

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