MANAGUA – Despite a world financial crisis and a year of political turmoil here, Nicaragua’s small yet feisty tourism sector proved its resilience in 2008 by growing 7.2 percent, according to numbers released this week by the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR).
In total, 857,480 international tourists visited Nicaragua in 2008, up from 799,996 tourists the year before.
INTUR is calling the tourism growth “one of the greatest achievements of 2008.”
Central America remains the most important market for Nicaragua’s tourism sector, representing more than 60 percent of the total tourists visiting last year. The North American market, however, showed the most growth last year, increasing 13.7 percent to 233,235 tourists.
The European market registered minimal growth, up 2.4 percent to 54,879 tourists in 2008.
Tourism helped to generate much-needed income for the impoverished economy, netting $277.8 million in 2008, according to INTUR’s calculations. That represents a 10 percent increase from 2007, when tourism generated $255.1 million.
Investment in tourism projects under Law 306 (the Law of Tourism Incentives), also increased to $17.1 million last year, up from $5.2 million in 2007. In total, 33 new tourism projects were approved last year for incentives under Law 306, marking an 18 percent increase from the year before.
The cruise ship industry also showed important potential last year. A total of 59 cruise ships visited Nicaragua in 2008, up nearly 60 percent from the year before.
Now that ships are arriving more frequently, beach towns such as San Juan del Sur are challenged to make some money off the situation. Of the 43,614 tourists who arrived in cruise ships last year, less than half of them actually got off the boat to visit the country, according to INTUR’s registry.
“The cruise ships are a great opportunity, but without attractions to offer them, it won’t be possible to turn this into a business possibility,” said San Juan del Sur’s outgoing Mayor Eduardo Holmann last September. “In addition to local efforts, we need the active participation and support of tour operators who are in charge of this business.”
In terms of promoting Nicaragua as a tourism destination, INTUR implemented a variety of strategies last year, from trade shows to media promotions. The government agency also focused heavily on developing human resources by working with U.S. and European travel agencies and tour operators who then replicate Nicaragua’s promotional reach in other countries.
INTUR says it worked on promoting Nicaragua with more than 400 travel agencies last year, an effort it estimates will translate into $108,000 in sales of Nicaraguan tourism packages this year.
In addition to working with tourism agencies, INTUR estimates that its presence in tourism trade shows and international media outlets reached 68 million people worldwide last year.
Nicaragua last year also continued to benefit from positive tourism stories in important international media outlets, including Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, Sports Illustrated and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) magazine, to name a few. INTUR estimates that all the tourism articles printed on Nicaragua last year are equivalent to $18.8 million in publication.
Despite the country’s worrisome political situation, Nicaragua continues to produce positive press as a tourism destination. A big travel article on Nicaragua coming out next month in the widely read Travel + Leisure Magazine is also expected to generate some more positive buzz for the country.
Another important promotional activity last year was the first-ever Central American Travel Market held in Managua, which brought together 154 tour operators and 42 media outlets from 23 countries. Nicaragua was represented by 47 tourism businesses, which networked with foreign tour operators.
INTUR estimates that those contacts made during the Central America Travel Market will translate into an additional $50 million in tourism income for Nicaragua this year.
As the tourism numbers grow, so too are the numbers of tourism businesses and jobs in Nicaragua.
There are now a total of 3,328 registered tourism businesses – most of which are small and medium-sized operations – that directly employ more than 25,000 Nicaraguans, according to INTUR.
The government has also invested in the professionalization of the tourism sector by training some 7,500 tourism employees last year, up 122 percent from the government’s training efforts in 2007.
Those efforts, according to tourism-sector leaders, help assure that tourism is not only creating jobs, but quality jobs.
Spreading the Wealth
INTUR has also made great efforts to expand the tourism offering of Nicaragua and spread tourism activity to more rural parts of the country.
The so-called Water Route, a tourism initiative to promote the southern part of Lake Cocibolca and the San Juan River, is more than 95 percent completed and expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. The project, so far, has included the construction of an airstrip and new boardwalk in the river port town of San Carlos, and new migration posts along the Costa Rican border in Los Guatuzos, San Carlos, Las Tablillas, Sarapiquí and San Juan del Nicaragua (Greytown), where a new tourism information office is being built.
Another tourism initiative, the Coffee Route, is also in the works in the northern municipalities of Matagalpa, Jinotega, Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia and will benefit 14 community tourism initiatives in 31 rural municipalities, according to INTUR.
Tourism experts say the Nicaraguan government is on the right track by focusing on diversifying its tourism offering.
“We have to improve the most well known tourism destinations in the country, but it’s also important to offer tourists more opportunities to stay longer and do more while they are here. So it’s important to work to diversify the tourism product,” said former tourism minister María Nelly Rivas, who now works as the Central American coordinator for the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization in Managua.
Rivas said that tourism has already shown itself to be one of the greatest generators of income in developing countries, and the fact that it continues to grow in Nicaragua during a worldwide economic downturn is proof positive of the industry’s importance to the country’s growth.
“The government uses the phrase, ‘Where tourism advances, poverty retreats.’ And we are seeing this vision reflected,” Rivas said.
Though the World Tourism Organization is predicting a slowdown in tourism growth in 2009 – the first six months of the year are expected to be especially difficult – Rivas says the good news is that the tourism sector is expected to be the first to recover from the economic recession.
Some have even ventured to say that the strength of the Euro against the U.S. Dollar could present an opportunity for countries such as Nicaragua, as U.S. tourists look south for near-shore destinations where their money will stretch further.
In addition, Rivas stressed, Nicaragua is still considered a “novel” tourism destination, something that is helping to distinguish it from other parts of the world.
“Nicaragua is still a novel destination, and this will continue for several more years,” Rivas said.
The country’s novelty is enticing not only to backpackers, but also to more well-heeled travels who have money to spend and are looking for interesting stories to tell at cocktail parties.
“People who went to Thailand 15 years ago, are now coming to Nicaragua,” Rivas said.