SAN RAFAEL DEL SUR – On most tourist maps of Nicaragua, the 2-kilometer stretch of central Pacific coastline between Pochomil and La Boquita appears as unmarked beachfront.
But that didn’t keep developer Kevin Fleming from finding this “undiscovered” beach and charting it for what will be the largest and most ambitious tourism-development in Nicaragua’s history: The Seaside Mariana Spa & Golf Resort.
The project not only aims to put this beach on the Nicaraguan map, but put Nicaragua on the world tourism map.
Even before breaking ground, Seaside Mariana, which will be home to Central America’s first Jack Nicklaus signature golf course, is already causing a buzz in the golf world. Industry insiders say the Nicklaus team is already touting Seaside Mariana as one of the new projects they are most excited about in the world.
The course is expected to have an enormous draw for international golfers looking for a tropical, oceanfront course that’s designed by the leading name in the sport. Nicklaus, who visited Nicaragua last year to scout out the terrain and design the holes, later gushed about what a special and unique course it would be – no small claim for someone who has designed more than 300 courses around the world.
The golf buzz is also translating into excitement about the project’s real estate potential and its prospects of franchising the Grupo Mariana brand across the country to develop a national chain of worldclass tourism destinations in Nicaragua, Fleming said.
“We are going to make Nicaragua the No. 1 tourism destination in Central America, and raise awareness about the country around the world,” Fleming, a 37-year-old Canadian, told The Nica Times.
In fact, Fleming’s dream for Nicaragua and Grupo Mariana – named after his Nicaraguan wife – is so grandiose it can barely be contained by the country’s borders.
Over the next five years, Fleming said, he hopes to make Nicaragua a “mainstream” international tourism destination by developing 25 tourism projects around the country, totaling 5,000 new rooms to meet the projected increase in tourism demand.
Fleming’s vision is to have the Seaside Mariana project, a massive complex with condos, golf course villas, a spa and a luxury boutique hotel, serve as the flagship for the other Grupo Mariana developments in cities and towns such as León, Granada, Managua and San Juan del Sur – and that’s for starters.
Because of the country’s wide array of tourist attractions, Fleming says he wants to offer a product line that would allow a family to visit Nicaragua and spend several days at the Seaside Mariana Spa & Golf Resort, a couple nights at the Grupo Mariana boutique hotel that he plans to build in Granada, and several days exploring Isla Mariana, an island resort off the coast of León. All the projects, he said, will have the same quality of excellence.
“We are going to bring new brands into Nicaragua to satisfy the niche markets and raise the development standards on all levels,” Fleming said. “Within five years, we’ll be the largest project in the country.”
The government is also enthusiastic about the project.
Investment-promotion agency Pro Nicaragua has endorsed Seaside Mariana and Tourism Minister Mario Salinas said the project is “one of the premier investment projects in Nicaragua” and meets “all the requirements” for government support.
The Seaside Mariana project, which is being planned and developed by Fleming’s development group, Nicaragua Developments S.A., will have two luxury condominium buildings – “beachfront” and “ocean view” –as well as 16 golf-course villas and 305 additional ocean view, riverside and “equestrian” golf-course lots on a sprawling 923-acre private community. The resort community will also include a world-class spa, fitness center, beach club with pools, shops, restaurants, a boutique hotel and nightlife, among other attractions.
Once completed, owners will be able to earn income on their house or condo unit by renting it to golfers and other vacationers through Kemper Sports Management, a leading U.S. sports firm that will manage Seaside Mariana.
Fleming said sales are already brisk, totaling 365 lots and condo units so far in the pre-construction stage. The beachfront condo building has already sold 39 of 86 units, and the ocean view building, which just came on the market, has already sold 13 units. Fleming said he expects construction to start within a year, with completion of the first phase by the end of 2010.
Fleming didn’t want to publicize the amount of money he calculates it will take to build the project, but said he’s not worried about getting the funding. In addition to individual investors, Fleming said, he is in talks with major banks and other “institutional investors” and has already raised a good amount.
“The money is out there; it’s on the sidelines and people want to invest. They just need to know where to put it,” Fleming said.
When it comes to attracting individual investors to Seaside Mariana, Fleming said the first step is selling people on the idea of the “New Nicaragua.” That’s why Seaside Mariana has started its promotional campaign by focusing on selling the image of Nicaragua on billboards in Managua and with ads in The Nica Times and other press in the United States and Europe.
Fleming realizes that one of the biggest challenges to getting investors to put their money in Nicaragua is to first get them to come see the country. Once that step has been taken, the next step becomes infinitely easier to make as visitors oftentimes become enchanted with the country at first site – a phenomenon former Tourism Minister Lucia Salazar called “the low-expectation factor.”
During a recent investment seminar held for aspiring investors and those who have already purchased at Seaside Mariana or one of the other Grupo Mariana projects, investors from different parts of the United States, Canada, Costa Rica and Europe appeared impressed with the project and the country, each for different reasons.
Anthony Maher, a 29-year-old professional indoor soccer player from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said his “expectations were blown away about both the country and the product.”
As a sports guy, Maher said the recognized sports brand names Kemper and Jack Nicklaus put him “at ease” with the investment.
Cliff Hall, of Bournemouth, UK, said his impression of Nicaragua was that it was a “great holiday playground for anyone from the United States; it’s lovely, actually.”
Though Hall said the 14-hour trek to Nicaragua from his hometown is a “fair journey,” Seaside Mariana made sense to him as an investment. “As an investment, yes, I think it will be great,” he said. “I you live in the states and love golf, what more could you want?”
Yasmin O’Boyle, a Londoner who bought an ocean view condo sight unseen, said she was impressed with the beauty and feel of Nicaragua. O’Boyle said she is in the process of selling her apartment in London to move to Nicaragua, attracted by the countryside and a pace of life that reminds her of her early childhood in Tanzania.
“My childhood was like Huckleberry Finn; life was safe and free,” O’Boyle said wistfully. “I feel that here in Nicaragua. I want my childhood back!”
Still others said they were impressed with Seaside Mariana’s social-development foundation, which is helping to build schools, teach job skills and reforest the surrounding areas. The foundation will be financed, in large part, through the sale of 24 prime lots, which will infuse millions of dollars into the social program.
“The goal is to help the entire municipality of San Rafael and the surrounding communities with health and education programs, and also by providing job training for the project, English classes, masonry and carpentry skills,” said Carmen Elizondo, executive director of the community development Mariana Foundation. “We want to have an economic and social impact on these communities, where the only employment now is seasonal work during the cane harvest.”
While no development project can expect to offer everything to everyone, Fleming said the Grupo Mariana project’s aim is to offer many things to many people. It’s that combination of quality and diverse tourism offerings, coupled with a strong social component, that Fleming said separates his project from others in Nicaragua.
And it’s ultimately a lure that Fleming thinks is strong enough to help investors overcome whatever hesitations they might have about Nicaragua.
“People will always want to go on vacation,” he said. “Governments come and go, but the lakes, volcanoes and beaches of Nicaragua will always be here.”
For more information, visit www.seasidemariana.com.