By David Hutt | Special to The Tico Times
MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Not far from the city of Rivas, in southern Nicaragua, a $40 million luxury resort is expected to open in coming months. Mukul will boast 37 rooms, a 24-hour butler service, world-class spas, and a golf course designed by the internationally renowned designer David McLay. ProNicaragua, an investment promotion agency, describes it as the country’s “first full-fledged luxury hotel.”
The resort is situated within a far bigger project, Guacalito de la Isla, a 1,670-acre site on which 600 exquisite residences will be built for retirees or wealthy jet-setters, as well as a proposed private airstrip. Behind these projects is Carlos Pellas, one of Nicaragua’s leading capitalists and a regular on lists of the wealthiest Latin Americans.
To stay for one night at the Mukul resort will set visitors back $500.
But executives are not biting their nails with fear of empty rooms. Last year, they hired the luxury travel promoter Kurtz-Ahlers & Associates to publicize the resort, and for the past few months the finest international travel agencies have been touring Nicaragua and the resort.
Tourists with deeper pockets
A recent statement by ProNicaragua asked, “What transforms a country from tourism pariah to hot destination for wealthy travelers? First, you need a place for opulence-seeking people to stay.”
It is perhaps wrong to call Nicaragua a pariah. In 2010, the country welcomed for the first time more than one million visitors. Last year, this number was up to 1.2 million. Nicaragua also is not short on accolades. It was named the “No. 1 Emerging Destination” by Wanderlust Travel and ranked third on the New York Times list of travel destination for 2013.
But Nicaragua is a pariah if you view tourism by how much money is spent. In Costa Rica, the average visitor spends $118 a day. In Nicaragua, a visitor spends just $43.
The goal of the Nicaraguan government is to welcome a “better” class of tourist – those with larger wallets and less frugal minds. Recently, Tourism Minister Mario Salinas said, “We have to bring two million tourists here a year, but we need them to spend $100-$130 per day.”
According to the minister, those figures would help Nicaragua “preserve our nature, our culture, our folklore, and our traditions, because that’s what we have to sell. And if we lose that, we have killed the golden goose.”
For Salinas, Nicaragua needs to increase its revenue from tourists through quality, not quantity. Tourism officials would prefer two million travelers spending $100 each per day, rather than five million spending half that amount.
In addition to the Mukul resort, Nicaragua can claim dozens of other luxury resorts aimed at the high-end market. Even on the remote Little Corn Island in the Caribbean Sea, the soon-to-be-completed Yemaya Island Retreat will charge almost 10 times as much as most current accommodations. The change has been no accident.
Since returning to power in 2007, President Daniel Ortega has led his country headfirst into the tourism industry. In 2010, the industry was still nascent, but since then, Nicaragua has seen nothing but progress.
Speaking at last month’s Central American Advantage Conference in Managua, Julio Videa, the Tourism Ministry’s director of marketing and promotion, stated that over the past five years the Nicaraguan government has invested more than $400 million in infrastructure for tourism. In the past three years it has increased the budget for tourism five-fold.
“We expect a new airport near Managua to be completed soon, as well as a marina in San Juan del Sur,” Videa said.
There also is talk of an airport near the colonial capital of León.
However, while progress occurs and Nicaragua welcomes more tourists with deeper pockets, it is essential that those in charge do not lose sight of the bigger picture, observers note. Tourism is a means to an end – economic development and social improvement must also be a priority in Central America’s poorest country.
Nicaragua also cannot forget its backpackers and “volun-tourists,” who may not spend hundreds of dollars a day, but provide a far greater social value to the country.
In any case, the march continues towards luxury resorts and high-end tourism. It will take many years to approach the standards set by Costa Rica, but Nicaragua has high aspirations and a government with a track record of meeting tourism goals.