San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica competes with rest of Central America for your tourism dollars

SAN SALVADOR – Eduardo Arriaza was an engineering student when civil war broke out in his native El Salvador, forcing him to flee the country. He spent six years in the United States and Canada, among other things dabbling in the used-car business and working for a carpet store in San Francisco.

The money was good, but he eventually decided to return to El Salvador because it had been years since he’d seen his children, now 18 and 20 years old.

“Things are much more secure now,” said Arriaza, 48. “For a few years, I’ve been working as a tour guide, and now I’m moving forward into Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It’s one of the reasons I got into [the tourism] business – because people didn’t know anything about El Salvador.”

That’s also one of Rafael Leret’s goals. As president of the Salvadoran Tourism Chamber (Casatur), Leret wants foreigners to come see El Salvador’s beauty and spend money here in the process.

“Our civil war ended 19 years ago, but many people think we’re still at war,” he said, only half joking. “Our chamber was created in 2008 and includes all the associations in the tourism business – restaurants, airlines, tour operators, hotels and handicrafts groups. We have eight directors from the public sector and eight from the private sector, and an annual budget of around $8.5 million. We’re starting to rebuild our tourism infrastructure, and we’re making a lot of effort to turn El Salvador into a world-class tourist destination.”

In 2009, said Leret, the country received 1.6 million visitors and about $800 million in tourism revenue, with 2010 figures expected to show a 10 percent growth.

Irazu Volcano

Main crater at Costa Rica’s Irazú Volcano.

Alberto Font

Some 60 percent of those visitors are from Central America, 35 percent are from the United States, and the remaining 5 percent are from Europe and Canada. Interestingly, about 60 percent of the U.S. visitors are of Salvadoran origin.

“We have two major groups of people: nostalgic Salvadorans who live outside the country, and corporate travelers. What we are trying to do is increase leisure and convention tourism,” Leret said. “The visiting Salvadorans don’t use tourist services too much, but they come with money to spend on their families and they eat at restaurants and they rent cars,” spending $95 a day per person on average. That compares to average daily expenditures of $115 to $120 for leisure tourists.

But when it comes to making money from tourism, El Salvador lags behind its neighbors, with tourism comprising only 2.8 percent of gross domestic product. That compares to 12 percent for Costa Rica and 20 percent for tiny Belize, the region’s least-populated country. Leret said Central America as a whole generates $8 billion a year from tourism, about 5 percent of total regional GDP.

In neighboring Guatemala, drug-related violence and gang warfare have scared many tourists away, though a delegation of U.S. health care institutions recently toured Guatemala to promote it as – of all things – a medical destination. Representatives from Jackson Memorial Hospital, Baptist Health South Florida and other hospitals visited the country, which hopes to attract at least some of the 9 million U.S. citizens expected to seek medical attention and relaxation in Latin America next year.

Panama, meanwhile, is betting on golf as a way to attract tourists. The country has 12 golf courses and another two under construction. This, in turn, generates demand for trained personnel. According to the Panama Golf Association, each course needs at least 50 employees, including gardeners and landscape workers.

Casco Viejo, Panama City

Casco Viejo historic district in Panama City.

Tim Rogers

Panama’s Tourism Authority has an annual $12 million budget to promote tourism. The agency is currently working on five commercials to publicize Panama’s attractions abroad.

On March 3, InterContinental Hotels Group announced an agreement with Shakir Investment Group for construction of a 122-room Staybridge Suites to open in late 2012 in Panama City. It’ll be the first Staybridge in Central America and only the second in Latin America.

This June, the first Trump Hotel Collection property in Latin America will open in Panama City. The Trump Ocean Club project required a $400 million investment, including $220 million from a bond sale by Newland International Properties Corp. in 2007. The hotel will have 369 rooms, 700 condo units, 1,500 to 1,700 parking spaces and a private beach club.

Panama City will also get its first Aloft hotel next year. The 312-room property, to open in December 2012, will have over 4,000 square feet of meeting space. It’s being developed by Nuevos Hoteles de Panamá S.A. and will operate under a franchise agreement with Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide.

Not all of Panama’s new hotel projects are in luxurious skyscrapers.

Last December, Las Clementinas opened in Casco Viejo, the walled historic district of Panama City. The restored 1930s building, located next to the police station and patterned on 19th-century French architecture, has six suites and is the sister hotel of The Canal House, recently named Panama’s top boutique property by Lonely Planet. The hotel’s 800-square-foot suites are designed to be a base for business travelers on extended stays.

When it comes to cruise-ship tourism, Honduras is Central America’s leading destination. Last year, Roatán – the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands – received just over 771,000 passengers, a 178 percent increase over 2005 figures. And overall, Central America cruise passenger arrivals have climbed 29 percent in the past five years (TT, March 11).

But tourists are also flocking to mainland Honduras. Within 18 months, a new airport is set to open in Río Amarillo, some 15 kilometers from the Mayan ruins of Copán, according to Honduran Tourism Minister Nelly Jerez. Environmental impact studies have already been prepared with help from the Honduran Anthropology and History Institute. They now await a final decision from UNESCO, as the area is considered a World Heritage Site.

In Nicaragua, government officials said they expect $100 million worth of investment in tourism projects this year.

Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) President Mario Salinas said 1.01 million foreign tourists visited the country in 2010, an 8.4

El Gueguense Dance

El Güegüense, the famous colonial theatrical dance of Nicaragua.

Tim Rogers

percent increase over the 931,904 foreigners who visited the country in 2009 and the first time Nicaragua has exceeded the 1 million mark in foreign visitors.

The increase is due to the fact that “Nicaragua is perceived as an interesting destination on the international level,” said Salinas. He said 60 percent of the tourists who visit Nicaragua come from other Central American countries, mainly Honduras, followed by the United States, Canada and Europe. Average stay in the country is 7.3 days, and each tourist spends an average of $50 per day. Authorities registered gross income of $360 million from foreign tourism in 2010, up from $346 million in 2009.

To boost those numbers, INTUR has launched a $7.2 million advertising campaign, which includes $3 million for the promotion of “agritourism farms” that will offer tourists not only accommodations but also activities such as hiking and horseback riding.

Choice Hotels International is seeking to expand in Nicaragua by linking up with independent hotels. Rodolfo Guillioli, director of development and strategy at Real Hotels and Resorts, has been meeting with owners or representatives of hotels to offer them the opportunity to form part of one of the four Choice brands: Sleep Inn, Comfort, Quality and Clarion.

“We currently have 15 Choice brand hotels in the region,” Guillioli said. “Nicaragua is the only country here where we don’t, and we expect to change that soon.”

El Salvador, by comparison, has about 10,000 hotel rooms, according to Casatur’s Leret, but only 1,500 are in four- or five-star properties.

Local Tourist

Local tourist Andrea Villatoro enjoys a mojito at Playa Sunzal, a surfers’ mecca on El Salvador’s Pacific coast.

Larry Luxner

In addition to more traditional tourist activities, like shopping in San Salvador or  volcano climbing at Quetzaltepec along the road to La Libertad, one company even promotes “guerrilla tourism” packages. These take visitors to former Farabundo Martí National Liberation Movement (FMLN) training camps, sites of important battles and the Museum of the Revolution in Perquín, capital of the department of Morazán, as well as San Salvador’s Monumento a los Desparecidos.

Also well worth visiting is Joya de Cerén, a pre-Columbian Maya farming village not far from San Salvador that has been preserved intact ever since its destruction by volcanic ash around A.D. 600. Recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it ranks as El Salvador’s most important archaeological excavation.

“We want to mix the Mayan experience with the adventure experience – surfing, kayaking, mountain climbing and rafting,” Leret said. “Some countries have eight spots for surfing. We have 14. Just a short drive from San Salvador, you can find lots of boutique hotels specifically targeted at surfers.”

As Leret says, “El Salvador is the country of 45 minutes. Nothing is far away.”

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