Big on options but small in size, Central America offers travelers an opportunity unlike any other left in the world – to hike primary rain forest, lounge on white-sand Caribbean beaches, surf Pacific waves, then walk the cobblestone streets of a Spanish-colonial city – and to do it all in one trip.
Such offerings, according to travel insiders, are becoming more and more common, and attractive, as inter-country travel becomes easier and easier worldwide – especially in Central America, where tourism is growing an average of 10% per year.
According to the Central American Tourism Promotion Agency, the number of tour operators offering multi-country travel packages and tours increased 9% in 2006.
Last year, the agency recorded 6.9 million visitors to the Central American countries.
Europeans led the charge, explained Coralia Dreyfus of the Central American Integration System, a United Nations-supported agency that directs tourism integration efforts in the region.
“Without a doubt, the Europeans are most interested in such multi-country trips,” she said. “Because they come from so far away, they want to take advantage of their investment and time by getting to know more than just one country.”
She adds that Europeans also tend to have more vacation time than North Americans, which gives them added flexibility.
Because such trips are relatively new, many businesses and government institutions find themselves in the early planning stages of offering multi-country tours, trips and flights, said Dreyfus – but everyone seems to agree it is the market of the future.
“A lot of the barriers to travel – political strife, war and immigration problems – have come down in the past few years,” explains César Solís, head of sales and marketing for domestic airline Sansa (www.flysansa.com, 290-4100).He said his airline, a subsidiary of TACA, Central America’s umbrella airline, has seen a marked increase in inter-country travel and flights.
Technology, too, has helped, with research and communication easier than ever before, thanks largely to the Internet.
He said TACA has quickly moved to take advantage of the burgeoning market, with connecting flights between several cities in Central America, often centering around the region’s major tourism hub, Costa Rica.
“Our goal is to link all the countries of Central America with direct flights,” Solís said.
Nature Air (www.natureair.com, 299-6000), another of Costa Rica’s domestic airlines, is also looking to increase its inter- country flights, particularly between San José and destinations in Panama and Nicaragua.
It already offers thrice-weekly flights to Bocas del Toro off Panama’s northern Caribbean coast, including two-day, three-night weekend packages including flights and accommodations ($319 per person).
Nature Air’s Lisette Acosta advises potential customers to stay tuned. New flights, she said, are being considered to other destinations in Panama and Nicaragua, despite the fact that safety and logistical issues led to the cancellation of a formerly popular flight to Granada, in southern Nicaragua (TT, Jan. 19).
She added that charter flights are also available throughout Central America, and while the costs depend on the destination, they begin at about $1,500 for six to 12 people.
Those seeking to travel between Costa Rica and Nicaragua by vehicle find their options more limited, but one rental company, Alamo Rent-a-Car (www.alamocostarica.com, 800-570-0671), offers an exchange service for its clients at Nicaraguan border stations, allowing them to trade a CostaRican vehicle for one with Nicaraguan plates prior to crossing.
Rolando Campos, sales manager at Swiss Travel (www.swisstravelcr.com, 282-4898), a Costa Rica-based tourism company offering a wide array of inter-country tours, said he has seen a significant increase in demand for such trips, particularly this year and last.
He divides Central America into two triangles: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in one, and Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama in the other. The southern itineraries are still the most popular, he said, allowing for various combinations and country visits, including a nine-day trip that features visits to three volcanoes and all of Nicaragua’s major cities from Costa Rica.
He also attributes the popularity of multicountry tours to the European influx of tourists looking to maximize their vacation days and dollars. North Americans, he said, who usually operate on a tighter schedule, are beginning to take advantage of one-day tours to Nicaragua from various hotels in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
“We pick clients up in a bus, take them to Nicaragua for the day, handle all meals, park and city visits and immigration procedures, then return with them the same day,” Campos said.
He adds that those coming from neighboring countries also take advantage of the one-day tours, allowing them to see different regions of Costa Rica from a “home base” hotel.
For more information on Swiss Travel’s one-day tours, inside Costa Rica and out, see www.costaricaonedaytours.com.
Costa Rica to Host Central America Travel Market
Geared toward attracting more international tourism to the region and promoting its multi-destination appeal, Central America Travel Market 2007 will be held Oct. 11-13 at the Cariari Country Club in Cariari, northwest of San José.
Organized by the Central American Federation of Tourism Chambers, with the support of Costa Rica’s National Tourism Chamber, the event will allow Central American tourism operators and organizations to showcase their offerings to outbound wholesalers and operators from Europe, Asia and Latin America, according to the event’s Web site, www.catm2007.com.
This is the first time Costa Rica will be hosting the rotating event, which has been held in Guatemala, Panama and Honduras since its inception in 2004.
For more information, visit the event’s Web site or contact the National Tourism Chamber at 234-6222 or [email protected].