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Tourism Minister Seeks to Triple Budget

MANAGUA – Tourists may soon have to cough up more cash to enter the country as part of the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute’s (INTUR)  push to collect more funds for promotion, according to Tourism Minister Mario Salinas.
In coming weeks, Salinas will present a proposal to President Daniel Ortega requesting to at least double the current $5 entrance fee for tourists, and also requesting an increase in taxes on foreign flights coming to Nicaragua. The proposal, Salinas says, is part of his push to triple the size of INTUR’s $1 million budget, a fraction of what neighboring countries are spending on tourism promotion.
Leaders of the private sector recently came down on INTUR for its lack of spending on publicity in 2007, during which INTUR underutilized its budget and underwent a dizzying personnel shake-up (NT, Jan 11).
Now that Salinas is back behind the wheel of the government tourism institute, after President Daniel Ortega yanked him for a  brief six-month stint to work as his personal Tourism and Housing aide, the minister wants to raise more funds to advertise Nicaragua and promote the country in more than two dozen tourism fairs in Europe, North America, and – in particular – Central America, Nicaragua’s biggest tourism market.
Salinas, a European-educated architect who has put aside a slew of urban development projects to try his hand in the public sector, is an integrationist at heart. He wants nothing less than for travelers to be able to fly anywhere in Central America without having to go through customs.
“Tourism can achieve Central American integration more than anything else. No other activity lends itself so well to integration,” Salinas told The Nica Times last week before heading to El Salvador to push customs integration there.
With Salinas at the helm, Nicaragua has a handful of plans to strengthen tourism ties with its Central American neighbors in 2008.
For starters, INTUR will retake its initiative to open tourism offices in San Salvador, El Salvador and Liberia, Costa Rica, and will launch an ad campaign to attract tourists in Honduras. In the coming months, the presidents of Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador are slated to meet to begin work on a plan to develop the Gulf of Fonseca – a sheltered Pacific inlet that borders all three countries – as a multinational tourism destination.
Salinas hopes to execute an agreement between the CA-4 Nations (Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) to reduce the presence of customs for travelers flying between those countries.And he wants to start laying the groundwork for a binational San Juan River tourism plan that Ortega discussed with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias during a visit to that country in November.
Fresh Start
Salinas expects there will be less personnel shuffling this year now that the Ortega administration has settled in. And he acknowledges that last year’s changing of the guard may have contributed to slowed tourism growth in 2007, which dropped from 8% to 6%.
“Always in Nicaragua, when there’s a change of government, you feel it the first year,” Salinas said, sitting in his third-floor INTUR office in Managua.
But Salinas’ plan for 2008 is more optimistic. He says the goal for this year is for a 12% increase in tourists and $300 million in tourism-generated revenue, up nearly $40 million from last year.
With several high-end resorts developing here – including a group of Spanish investors looking to make major investments on the Caribbean coast – Salinas says the tourism market in Nicaragua is maturing. That is why most of the tourism fairs that INTUR representatives will travel to this year will be in the developed world, although there is some debate within the administration whether INTUR would be better off focusing on countries closer to home.
Salinas has already scheduled a slew of engagements across Europe and the United States to attend travel fairs there, and to place ads – like the “Visit Nicaragua” ad that ran on the digital screen in Madison Square Garden this month – in those strategic markets.
INTUR is also trying some more innovative advertising efforts; up and coming Nicaraguan boxer Román “Chocolatito” González last week fought an international bout in Japan with the words “Visit Nicaragua” emblazoned across the back of his shorts.
At home, one of INTUR’s big focuses this year will be along the San Juan River, the southern border where the government is designing two new customs booths, and expects to see construction begin on two new  airports in San Carlos and San Juan del Norte– the two cities that bookend the river.
On the southern border as well as the northern border, INTUR will also be installing devices to keep better tabs on the number of tourists entering the country by land.
Salinas said he will be looking toward Costa Rican Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides this year to develop a bi-national tourism project that revolves around the San Juan River.
“I’ve spoken briefly with [Benavides], and he agrees. We need to coordinate along the border,” Salinas said.
On the Pacific coast, Salinas sees good news: Contractors have begun construction on some of the pothole-ridden highways and byways most frequented by tourists. The roads between León-Poneloya, Masaya-Nandaime, Granada-Nandaime and Diriamba-Bocita are all to get facelifts this year.
Salinas says he will also talk to Ortega about the private sector’s concerns with the lack of promotional funding in hopes of getting support to collect more funds.
The government’s plan for 2008 will seek to finance 200 small and medium-sized tourism businesses in rural regions throughout the country, to train some 370 tourist guides and more than 500 tourism police to more than double the tourist cop force.
INTUR is also looking to expand the country’s tourism offering and distribute tourism revenue through a new initiative called the “Hacienda Route,” a network of rural tourism sites where tourists will be invited to go local by staying on a working family ranch or plantation.
“We’re working with the community tourism network. We want to get them financing and get them into the fairs so they can start getting reservations,” he said.
INTUR will also team up with Nicaragua’s National Technological Institute (INATEC) this year to train 425 employees at small and medium-sized tourism business in customer service, food preparation, and English courses in locations throughout the country.
In order to do all that, though, Salinas admits, he’ll need the resources.
“Evidently, [the budget] is just not enough for what we need to get done,” he said.

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